Category Archives: Early Christianities

Where should the possibility of pre-Christian Jewish gnosticism fit? Where should we place the dividing line between events inferred from Acts/gospels/epistles on the one hand and accounts derived from Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius on the other? Should they all be included in Biblical Studies? If so, at what point do we break off that area and begin second century sources, then those of late antiquity? Marcion is second century but has an influence on biblical works. But how can we justify all of early Christianity into late antiquity and beyond being part of Biblical Studies? Ebionites are assigned to near apostolic times but are only found in late antiquity documents. Do we need a dividing line? Where do we put documents like Odes of Solomon that are seen by some to be pre-Christian but related to what emerged as more recognizable Christianity?

Another thesis introducing a Simonion gnosis into Paul’s letters

Prosper Alfaric

If you find the following mix of machine translation and my own editing horrific enough you may prefer to read the original French itself that I copy afterwards. But first, some background will help. Earlier in the article several redactions of Paul’s epistles have been postulated (credit to Turmel):

The original letters of Paul:

inspired by his faith in the forthcoming restoration of the kingdom of Israel which had been announced by Jesus and which constituted the initial substance of the Gospel.

A second redacted version had been attributed to Marcion and

corrected this messianic nationalism by the anti-Jewish gnosis of Marcion.

A third series of redactions produced the versions closer to what we have today, and

maintained the Gnostic Spiritualism of [Marcion’s edition] by dismissing or hiding its anti-Judaism.

The following passage we read a modified hypothesis:

(2) After the revolt of the Jews in 66 and their final crushing in 70, a strong current of anti-Judaism spread in the eastern part of the Roman Empire but especially in Syria. The Judeo-Christians of Jerusalem had retreated to the confines of Transjordan, where they lingered, under the name of “Nazarenes” or “Ebionites”, away from the rest of the Christianity, almost foreign to his life and evolution, so that they soon became heretics.

Antioch became the great metropolis of the Christian world. There was formed a “school of theology” which claimed Simon, the former Esmoun of the Phoenician coast, became the saviour god of the Samaritans. It repudiated the God of the Jews, considered the spirit of evil. It was said that Simon, whose name means “obedient”, had come from heaven to obey the will of the Most High and bring to men the “Gnosis”, that is, the true knowledge, that of their origin, of their nature and their end. The mind, it was said, came from God but fell because of an original fault, in the bonds of the flesh. It can recover its original purity and return to lost Paradise only by rejecting the traditional laws, especially those of the Jews, made to enslave him, and professing a docile faith in the liberating doctrine of Simon. With him, by the grace of the supreme God of whom he is sent, one is freed from sin. It is liberated from this mortal body to reach the life of the spirit by the practice of mortification, abstinence and continence.

It is a Christian transposition of this simonian gnosis offered to us in the econd redaction of Paul’s epistles. It differs singularly from the first. If it was added by a series of skilful interpolations and convenient suppressions, it was because she found there points of attachment which allowed her to benefit from the prestige of the Apostle without risking the disfavor of novelty in religion.

The original

(2) Après la révolte des Juifs en 66 et leur écrasement final en 70, un fort courant d’anti-judaïsme se répandit dans la partie orientale de l’empire romain mais surtout en Syrie. Lés Judéo-Chrétiens de Jérusalem s’étaient repliés sur les confins de la Transjordanie, où ils végétèrent, sous le nom de « Nazaréens » ou d’ « Ebionites », à l’écart du reste de la Chrétienté, presque étrangers à sa vie et à son évolution, de sorte qu’ils firent bientôt figure d’hérétiques.

Antioche devint la grande métropole du monde chrétien. Il s’y était formé une Ecole de théologie qui se réclamait de Simon, l’ancien Esmoun de la côte phénicienne, devenu le Dieu Sauveur des Samaritains. L’on y répudiait le Dieu des juifs, considéré comme le Génie du mal. On y disait que Simon, dont le ùom signifie « obéissant » était venu du ciel pour obéir à la volonté du Très-Haut et apporter aux hommes la « Gnose », c’est-à-dire la Science véritable, celle de leur origine, de leur nature et de leur fin. L’esprit, expliquait-on, est issu de Dieu mais tombé par suite d’une faute originelle, dans les liens de la chair. Il ne peut recouvrer sa pureté première et regagner le Paradis perdu qu’en rejetant les lois traditionnelles, surtout celles des juifs, faites pour l’asservir, et en professant une foi docile en la doctrine libératrice de Simon. Avec lui, par la grâce du Dieu suprême dont il est l’envoyé, on s’affranchit du péché. On se libère de ce corps mortel pour atteindre à la vie de l’esprit par la pratique de la mortification, de l’abstinence et de la continence.

C’est une transposition chrétienne de cette Gnose simonienne que nous offre la seconde rédaction des Epîtres de Paul. Elle diffère singulièrement de la première. Si elle lui a été adjointe par une série d’interpolations ingénieuses et de suppressions opportunes, c’est qu’elle y trouvait des points d’attache qui lui permettaient de bénéficier du prestige de l’Apôtre sans risquer la défaveur qui s’attache aux nouveautés en matière de religion.

Alfaric, Prosper. 1956. “Les Epitres de Paul.” Bulletin Du Cercle Ernest Renan 35 (April). p. 4

Please note, though, that I present the above as a summary of an idea that has connections with others that have been presented on this blog, especially though Roger Parvus’s posts — in the last of which he finds himself leaning towards a historical Jesus at the root of it all. As for my own views they are far from decided. There is simply so much material I have yet to consider and think through.

Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 3

The previous post concluded with

. . . at a minimum, the Saturnilians are addressing the same kind of issues we see in addressed in Paul’s letters. At a maximum, . . . 1 Corinthians could be providing us with a window . . . on the Saturnilian church sometime between 70 and 135 CE.

Continuing . . . .

What we would have in Galatians is not Paul’s version of events but Saturnilus’ version of Paul.

There have been biblical scholars who rejected—and not for religious reasons—the Galatians version of events and, on some points, were willing to accept that of Acts. 

The Real Paul

If in the Pauline letters someone—whether Saturnilus or someone else—has made Paul the recipient and bearer of a new gospel i.e., the Vision of Isaiah, it would mean that our knowledge of the real Paul is more questionable than ever. The widely accepted rule in New Testament scholarship has been to give Paul’s letters the nod whenever their information conflicts with that of the Acts of the Apostles, especially concerning Paul himself. His information is first-person and earlier than Acts. The author of Acts seems to be more ideologically-driven than Paul. So Paul’s account in Galatians 1:1-2:14 of how he came by his gospel and became an apostle is considered more accurate than what Acts says about the same matters. Likewise regarding Paul’s account of how in the presence of James, Peter and John he defended his gospel and received their approval of it. But this preference for the Galatians account of events takes a hit if it was in fact written by someone like Saturnilus who was looking to promote the gospel he had projected onto Paul. What we would have in Galatians is not Paul’s version of events but Saturnilus’ version of Paul.

There have been biblical scholars who rejected—and not for religious reasons—the Galatians version of events and, on some points, were willing to accept that of Acts. Alfred Loisy was one:

The legend of Paul has undergone a parallel amplification to that of Peter, but on two different lines: first, by his own statements or by the tradition of his Epistles designed to make him the possessor of the true Gospel and of a strictly personal mission for the conversion of the Gentile world; and then by the common tradition for the purpose of subordinating his role and activity to the work of the Twelve, and especially of Peter regarded as the chief instrument of the apostolate instituted by Jesus.

Relying on the Epistles and disregarding their apologetic and tendentious character, even in much that concerns the person of Paul, though this is perhaps secondary, criticism is apt to conclude that Paul from his conversion onwards had full consciousness of an exceptional calling as apostle to the pagans, and that he set to work, resolutely and alone, to conquer the world, drawing in his wake the leaders of Judaic Christianity, whether willing or not. And this, indeed, is how things happened if we take the indications of the Galatian Epistle at their face value. There we encounter an apostle who holds his commission from God only, who has a gospel peculiar to himself given him by immediate revelation, and has already begun the conquest of the whole Gentile world. No small claim! (Galatians i, 11-12, 15-17, 21-24; ii, 7-8).

But things did not really happen in that way, and could not have so happened…

Interpret as we may the over-statements in the Epistle to the Galatians, it is certain that Saul-Paul did not make his entry on the Christian stage as the absolute innovator, the autonomous and independent missionary exhibited by this Epistle. The believers in Damascus to whom Paul joined himself were zealous propagandists imbued with the spirit of Stephen, and there is nothing whatever to suggest that he was out of his element among them. Equally, he was quite unaware at that time of possessing a peculiar gospel or a vocation on a different level from that of all the other Christian missionaries. That idea he certainly did not bring with him to Antioch, where he found a community which others had built up and which recruited non-Jews without imposing circumcision. For long years he remained there as the helper of Barnabas rather than his chief... (La Naissance du Christianisme, ET: The Birth of the Christian Religion, translation by L.P. Jacks, University Books, 1962, pp. 126-7)

My hypothesis supports Loisy’s claim that the real Paul was commissioned as an apostle in the same way that other early missionaries were: by being delegated for a mission by a congregation which supported him. And that the real Paul’s gospel was no different from theirs: the kingdom of God is at hand and Jesus will be coming to establish it. But if that is the way the real Paul was, why does Acts try to take him down a notch? read more »

An experiment comparing gnostic and orthodox myths

This post is a follow up from Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness. I may come to see this attempt to compare the structures of the myths as a sad misadventure but till then, let’s see what happens.

Detail from the Santa Maria sarcophagus (late second century?). Was Jesus depicted as a child because the myth declared him to be a child at this point or is he depicted as a child to merely symbolize the beginning of a new life beside the aged John the Baptist representing the old?

We begin with the “gnostic myth” of the advent of an illuminator or saviour figure that was announced by the second kingdom:

1. A prophet is said to be the beginning of the saviour figure who is presented as a child.

2. A bird takes the saviour to a mountain, presumably a wilderness setting

3. The bird nourishes the child saviour in the mountain

4. Presumably after the child has become an adult an angel appears to declare the saviour figure now has power and glory

5. The figure comes to the water.

The image below attempts to illustrate that particular structure. (For the understanding of coming “upon” water as an expression relating to power and submission see the previous post.)

Next, look at a similar myth in the Book of Revelation, though we will simplify it for starters. This structure is illustrated in the middle column.

1. The prophet John is writing, or announcing, the advent of the child saviour figure from the time he is born.

2. An angelic voice declares that great power and glory has now come into being, presumably a proleptic announcement concerning the child. (The mother and child are separated; the mother will be a proxy for those who follow the saviour-child).

3. A bird (eagle) carries the mother of the child to the wilderness

4. The woman is nourished and cared for in the wilderness (by….?)

5. The water of chaos, a flood, attempts to destroy the woman but she is protected by the wilderness earth.

The larger structure is essentially the same as the gnostic myth but the middle two steps are reversed. This reversal appears to be a function of the splitting of the child from its mother (and rest of her seed).

The structure the previous two myths is completely inverted with the Gospel of Mark. Coming to the water or facing the water is now moved to the beginning, along with the prophet, and is no longer the culmination of the story. In this gospel the water has become a symbol of baptism which is a figure of the death of the old man (as per Paul). In the Gospel of Mark we have the narrative bookended by narratives of death and emergence from death, first symbolically in the water, then finally through the cross.

1. The prophet announces the advent of the man saviour.

2. The saviour figure comes to the water and as he emerges from it.

3. The saviour figure is addressed as a sacrificial victim — the inverse of the power and glory we saw in the other two myths. For “my beloved son” as a signal of a son to be sacrificed see Jon Levenson’s studies on the Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. But the power and glory is still latent because the saviour figure is still the son of God.

4. The spirit (identified as a bird, in this case the dove) drives or propels the saviour figure into the wilderness.

5. The saviour figure is nourished by angels in the wilderness. (Matthew and Luke add the mountain.)

The angels and the bird take on inverted meanings. The angels feed and nourish the saviour in the wilderness, thus doing enough merely to keep him alive after his long fast and encounter with Satan. There is no roaring declaration of the saviour being imbued with power and glory.

The bird has changed from an eagle to a dove. The eagle had the power to rescue and carry a person in flight. The dove drives the saviour figure into the wilderness but has already come to him at the moment he is declared to be the beloved son (for sacrifice).

The Gospel of Mark may be thought of as inverting the rival myths of a messiah or saviour coming with great power. The water has become a means of symbolic death and birth as a “beloved son” destined to be sacrificed.

The earlier myth of power is not completely displaced, however. We see the saviour figure in the wilderness nourishing his followers by the thousands; he then ascendes a mountain before returning to walk upon the water to his disciples. Several details of this narrative indicate it is to be understood as a theophany, or perhaps even originally a post-resurrection appearance. The myth of power is not completely replaced but it is supplemented by an inverted form of the myth to take place first.

 

Enticed by a great quote & surprised by an unexpected “mythicist”

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

Yesterday I completed reading a most unexpected argument (an argument that led to the conclusion that Christianity did not originate with a historical Jesus) in a book I borrowed on the understanding it would do nothing more for me than clarify a few textual details about our early accounts of the Last Supper. I was following up sources associated with my earlier post, The Two Steps to move the Lord’s Celebratory Supper to a Memorial of his Death.

I see now that if I had paid more attention to a few bibliographies of mythicists here and there on the web and to Klaus Schilling’s summaries/translations (here and here) I might have been forewarned. But I came to the name Jean Magne and some of his works in mainstream scholarly literature and had no forewarning.

The book I am talking about is From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity: An Itinerary Through the Texts to and from the Tree of Paradise. Its Introduction arrests us with

The following pages set out the results of my investigations which started in 1945 soon after my return from captivity in Germany.

From Christianity to Gnosis and from Gnosis to Christianity (1993) consists of a partial translation of Logique des Sacrements (1989) and the complete translated text of Logique des Dogmes (1989). Anyone even slightly aware of prominent names in biblical scholarship could not fail to be somewhat impressed by the mention of Neusner in the same Introduction:

I would like to reiterate . . . my heartfelt gratitude to Professor Jacob Neusner who prompted this publication, writing to me on February 19, 1990: “I found your thesis entirely plausible. If you can get the book translated into English, I can get it published in a series I edit”, and again on April 23: “I thought your book showed how first-rate scholarship could produce a compelling and important thesis. This is why I wanted it in English”.

Earlier I had attempted to work my way through the original French text of Jean Magne’s “Les Paroles Sur La Coupe” [literally “the words on the (eucharist) cup”] and found the French very difficult indeed, so I was somewhat sympathetic to several of the infelicities in the English translation of Magne’s book in English.

The method

The first part of the book, “From Christianity to Gnosis”, focuses on the textual evidence we have (canonical gospels, Paul’s letters, the Didache) for the origins of the current ritual of the eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Mass. What particularly struck as I read was the author’s method. This could be epitomized by the epigraph at the beginning of Magne’s second chapter:

Apart from archeological evidence, the only facts we can attain are the texts. We must therefore reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts.

(Magne, p. 23)

My search for the author of that epigraph eventually led me to the following explanation.

Dom Maerten’s criticism highlighted the difference which exists between the historical method based on authentic, dated documents and the critical method which, like an archeologist when he excavates, has to distinguish between the various redactional layers in biblical or liturgical documents. Errors of syntax are one of the means of reconstructing the prehistory of a text in order to attain History. The historian’s shortcoming lies in his frequent inability to distinguish between two literary genres : works that have an author and works of living literature where each generation has added its contribution.

Now that little point suddenly reminded me of another work I read and wrote about last year: Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon”. Revelation among many learned Judeans was not considered sealed up in a single book, but was always open to new understandings so that works in the names of certain authors multiplied. Adding to an existing text is not the same thing but it is similar. Did not the author of Revelation address this very practice when he pronounced a curse on anyone who would tamper with what he had just written — which ironically looks like something written over and around another earlier (non-Christian) text!

I cannot agree more with the first quote that speaks of the need to “reason about the texts that relate facts, not about the facts related by the texts”. But when it comes to the particular method of reasoning as set out in the second quotation I have some niggling doubts.

So when Jean Magne showed how textual inconsistencies in the various sources appeared very much to be resolved by fitting Jesus words that he would not drink the cup again until in the kingdom back into the gathering at Bethany and not on the Passover itself just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, I was fascinated. The Last Supper ritual of the Passover evening when Jesus declared the bread and wine to be his body and blood, etc. was a later addition to the Gospel of Mark. An earlier version of that gospel placed the arrest of Jesus immediately after his anointing for burial at Bethany.

I found the argument intriguing (and still do) but at the same time, and especially after many more such arguments relating to the various gospels and epistles, one is left with a very neat and very new picture of the evidence. It’s like the way the archaeologists found scattered pieces of an inscription at Tel Dan and studied to see the way they best fit together to make the most sense. Except with the texts we begin with texts that are already in one piece, only with lots of curious inconsistencies or non sequiturs in them that years of familiarity has very often hidden from us.

The point I am getting to is that after finding such nice fits by sifting out earlier from later strata one is left wishing one could find some additional independent source to test the new reconstructions. Have we built a new house of cards?

So I remain intrigued by Jean Magne’s arguments but I am also held in suspense, waiting for “the proof” to come along to confirm or demolish them. What I really would need to do, pending that moment, would be to devote considerable time and energy to a detailed study of Magne’s arguments and not simply rely upon a single reading of his book.

The overall argument

The general case Magne presents is that although our surviving gnostic texts (Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, Testament of Truth) are comparatively late, he finds that earlier Jewish and Christian texts (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) are best explained in places as attempts to refute the arguments that are often found in those later gnostic writings, or sometimes even advance them. The surviving forms of the gnostic works have themselves introduced efforts to rebut those earlier rebuttals. The Pseudo-Clementine writings about the contest between Simon Magus and Simon Peter may well attest to the real debates that were extant much earlier at the time of Paul and the authors of the gospels. (We know, of course, of the arguments from Roger Parvus, Hermann Detering and Robert M. Price that identify Paul with Simon Magus.)

Crucified in heaven

Before I fully grasped the extent of this argument I was struck by a passing comment on 1 Cor. 2:8 that I had posted about at length. read more »

Gnostic Interpretation of Exodus and Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossing_the_Red_Sea#/media/File:Dura_Europos_fresco_Jews_cross_Red_Sea.jpg

Recall that Hermann Detering was a work out about the gnostic interpretation of the Exodus and the beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus cult. See my earlier posts:

Since then René has posted a second installment. Meanwhile, on Hermann Detering’s page we see that a translation by Stuart Waugh is due to be “published soon”.

Here I set out my own notes from the first part of the work. I don’t read German except through machine translators, alas, so if anyone who has read the German original can see I have misstated something do let me know.

Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus

Philo

The earliest Jewish allegorical interpreter of the Exodus is Philo of Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century CE. In Philo’s Allegorical Interpretations II we see that Philo interpreted Egypt as a life of pleasure, a symbol of physical passions, in contrast to the wilderness, representing the spiritual life of the ascetic.

But notice that Philo extends his allegory of the exodus from Egypt to the wilderness by inclusion of the crossing of the Jordan River, apparently conflating this event with Moses’ (not Joshua’s) leadership.

Therefore, God asks of the wise Moses what there is in the practical life of his soul; for the hand is the symbol of action. And he answers, Instruction, which he calls a rod. On which account Jacob the supplanter of the passions, says, “For in my staff did I pass over this Jordan.” {Genesis 32:10.} But Jordan being interpreted means descent. And of the lower, and earthly, and perishable nature, vice and passion are component parts; and the mind of the ascetic passes over them in the course of its education. For it is too low a notion to explain his saying literally; as if it meant that he crossed the river, holding his staff in his hand.

The passage through the Red Sea is symbolic of the transition from the worldly to the spiritual life.

The Therapeutae read more »

Hermann Detering on the place of Gnosticism and Buddhism in Jesus Cult Origins

Recall a post now six months old: The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult — Hermann Detering

René Salm has begun a commentary series on Detering’s article. See

H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 1)

I look forward to doing my own discussions of Detering’s views as a result of a reader very generously working on an English translation in association with Dr Detering himself.

 

The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult — Hermann Detering

Hermann Detering has a new essay (70 pages in PDF format) that will be of interest to many Vridar readers — at least for those of you who can read German. In English the title is The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult. 

See his RadikalKritik blog:

 

The work begins with reference to Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the Exodus and concludes with references to Buddhism. . . .

5 Zusammenfassung

Ausgehend von der gnostischen Interpretation des Exodus-Motivs und der Frage ihrer religionsgeschichtlichen Herkunft stießen wir auf die zentrale Bedeutung des als Transzendenzmetapher gebrauchten Bildes vom „anderen Ufer“, das in der indischen/buddhistischen Spiritualität eine erhebliche Rolle spielt. Die Frage, wo die beiden Linien, jüdische Tradition und hebräische Bibel einerseits, buddhistische bzw. indische Spiritualität andererseits, konvergieren, führte uns zu den Therapeuten, über die Philo von Alexandrien in seiner Schrift De Vita Contemplativa berichtet.

Nachdem die buddhistische Herkunft der Therapeuten plausibel gemacht wurde, konnte gezeigt werden, dass ihrem zentralen Mysterium eine auf buddhistische Quellen zurückgehende Deutung des Exodusmotivs zugrundeliegt. Diese Deutung enthält zugleich den Keim für das christliche Taufsakrament. Frühe christliche Gnostiker wie Peraten und Naassener übertrugen auf den Nachfolger des Mose, Josua, was bei den stärker in der jüdischen Tradition verwurzelten Therapeuten Mose vorbehalten blieb. Der alte Mosaismus sollte durch den neuen, gnostisch-christlichen Josuanismus überboten werden. Jesus/Josua wurde zum Gegenbild des Mose.

Der christliche Erlöser Josua/Jesus ist so gesehen nichts anderes als – ein Ergebnis der jüdisch-buddhistischen Exegese des Alten Testaments! Der „geschichtliche“ Jesus, d.h. Jesus von Nazaret, wurde im Laufe des 2. Jahrhunderts aus dem Bild des alttestamentlichen Josua heraushypostasiert. 

Translators . . . . Where are you? We need you now!

 

 

Early Christianity Looked Like a Philosophical School

Continuing from the previous post on Stanley K. Stowers’ chapter, “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” . . .

To pre-empt predictable objections Stowers begins with three riders:

  1. His comparison study does not make claims about origins; he is not arguing that Christianity began as a Hellenistic philosophy.
  2. Comparison or similarity does not mean sameness; he is not arguing that Pauline Christianity was a philosophy.
  3. Similarities with philosophical schools do not exclude similarities with other social groups.

With that ground cleared, following are seven similarities Stowers identifies.

1. Hellenistic philosophies saw themselves as distinctive sects, each focused on a central value/good

There were, for example, Stoics, Cynics and Epicureans. Each of these had its own attitude toward life and idea of what is the single umbrella good to which one must strive.

Stoics taught that virtue was “the answer” to the question of life. Everything else, all the other values and attachments deemed to be good were subordinate to “unitary good” of virtue. Family, possessions, would always take second place in the event of any conflict in following the ideal of virtue.

For Epicureans the ultimate good was freedom from pain and friendship. And so forth.

For Paul, the single, overriding good was “life in Christ”. Other values such as marriage, the household, business, ethnicity, were secondary. Even the commandments of God in the Jewish scriptures were superseded by Christ.

Yes, Paul’s stress upon worship of only one God and not many, and his “apocalyptic intensification” of these beliefs was Jewish, but Paul ripped them away from their ethnic, cultic and legal Judean contexts.

2. Hellenistic philosophies were contrary to conventional thinking

Ordinary civic virtue and conventional values were not the way to “happiness” or the “good life” according to Hellenistic philosophies.

The philosophies taught new ways of thinking, new motivations and desires to cultivate. Asceticism was valued.

In this context Stowers believes it no accident that the founders of the Hellenistic schools were not married and that Jesus and Paul were not married either. Paul challenged both Gentile and Judean norms of culture. The wisdom of God was set in opposition to both Greek and Jewish values.

Again, the structural similarities with the philosophies are obvious. (p. 91)

3. Hellenistic philosophies led to a new life, a new orientation of the self, a conversion

Stoics taught that the conversion was instantaneous.

For a more detailed discussion of the similarity between Paul’s idea of conversion to a life in Christ and the Stoic conversion see:

  1. Paul and the Stoics – 1 (2009-11-04)
  2. Christian conversion – an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy (2009-11-08)

Other philosophies apparently ridiculed this Stoic idea of the way to attain virtue and taught, on the contrary, that virtue could only be attained gradually, over time, through a series of graduated steps.

Stowers adds that there is, moreover,

a literary tradition that becomes most prominent in the early empire in which writers give vivid descriptions of the turmoil and changes in the soul of those who convert to philosophy. Paul uses exactly the same language for conversion to the gospel. (p. 92)

4. Hellenistic philosophies required techniques to master and remake one’s self

read more »

Earliest Christianity Did Not Look Like a Religion

I have long been intrigued by the second century “church father” Justin Martyr identifying himself as a philosopher, not a “priest” or elder or bishop or other ecclesiastical type of title. He left it on record that he came to Christianity after surveying a range of other philosophies, not religions.

Time-warp forward to 2001 and the chapter titled “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” by Stanley K. Stowers in Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide (edited by Troels Engberg-Pedersen) and we find a rather solid explanation for Justin’s identification, I think.

Stop thinking of the “Jewish Synagogue” as the model for Paul’s churches

One of the first points Stowers sets down is that

We must remember that first-century Jews were Judeans. Interpreters should not, in principle, segregate Judeans from Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and so on by creating something suspiciously like a modern religion called Judaism. Even Jews who lived permanently in Rome or Alexandria were Judeans living outside of their traditional homeland and therefore similar to Syrians, Greeks, or Egyptians who lived abroad. (p. 83)

(Steven Mason makes the same point with his preference for the word Judeans in place of Jews in A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74.)

What Stowers is trying to get through to us is that we need to jettison any notion that when Jews were meeting in synagogues they were in some sense being astonishingly different from anyone else, and it therefore follows that scholars should be very careful before suggesting that Paul’s churches (and gentile Christianity itself) grew out of the synagogue.

A synagogue is a meeting place or meeting practices of Judeans. In our language Judeans were an ethnic people. Unfortunately the idea of “the synagogue” as a Jewish church still haunts much scholarship. (p. 83)

Judean worship was similar to the worship of other gods

Stowers argues that before 70 C.E. Jewish worship, even in the Diaspora, was centrally focussed on the temple in Jerusalem. The great temple festivals, tabernacles, pentecost, passover, were celebrated by Judeans throughout the empire. These were agricultural festivals that celebrated the gifts of produce and livestock that God gave his people, of success in trading and in acquiring the blessings of children.

Temple time with its agriculturally oriented calendar shaped the calendar of the Jews (sic) in general. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festivals and sacrifices was a major feature of the period. Many Judeans of the Diaspora directly participated in the temple cultus sometime during their lives. The temple tax that supported the daily sacrifices in the temple and the first fruit offerings that signified the ancient pattern of reciprocity and divine giving of productivity were among the major yearly efforts of Diaspora communities. (p. 84)

What of the place of the scriptures? It is generally agreed that the reading of scriptures was a very important for the religious life of Judeans. For Stowers,

The Torah, Prophets, and Psalms are . . . absolutely dominated by the centrality of the temple, priesthood and cult. The epics and myths of Judeans were about land, people, and socio-economic reciprocity with God and other Judeans. . . For Judeans, unlike for Christians, to study scripture was to be oriented toward an actual temple, a place where reciprocity with the divine was enacted in the imagined exchange of produce from the land and shop, womb and market. (p. 85)

Judean religion was focused on the idea of reciprocal exchange with God. God blessed his people; his people offered sacrifices and gifts and communal worship in return. And the temple was the focus of this exchange. Stowers writes that the religion of a Judean living 500 miles from Jerusalem differed little in principle from the one living 20 miles away.

Other cultural groups, those from places other than Judea, throughout the empire, recognized these Judean religious customs as counterparts to their own.

The dominant activities of the temple were sacrificial offerings of grain and animal products. Judeans shared these practices with Greeks, Romans, and most peoples of the Mediterranean world. Josephus proudly proclaims that Judeans share the practices of sacrificing domestic animals with “all the rest of humanity” (Ag. Ap., 2.137). (p. 85, my bolding)

Pauline Christianity did not look like a typical religion

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The Other Side of Early Christianity

So Christianity and paganism were not at all necessarily incompatible in the Roman empire. Our focus on biblical texts, the writings we have inherited from selected “church fathers” and sporadic persecutions in the later empire do not prepare us for early third century tombstones like this:
Funerary stele of Licinia Amias, one of the most ancient Christian inscriptions. ΙΧΘΥC ΖΩΝΤΩΝ Ikhthus zōntōn fish of the living

You recognize the fish, and possibly the inscription IXΘYC, ichthus, which means fish as well as being an acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God, Saviour.

So what’s it doing parallel to D.M. above, Dii Manes, To the Spirits of the Dead? It reminds me of a sarcophagus I used as an illustration way back in another post which depicts a series of Christian reliefs either side of the pagan image of the Orante or Orans female figure at prayer. Notable also on that sarcophagus is the absence of Jesus crucified. No crucifixes at all. The only suffering figure appears to be Jonah who is recovering beneath a pleasant gourd tree after his regurgitation from a great fish. Fish again. Jesus is a boy being baptized by an elderly John.

So much we don’t know. Thanks to Mary Beard’s documentary on Rome I am reminded of artifacts like these.

Details of the funerary stele above can be seen here:

 

Evidence for a Pre-Christian “Christianity”?

spiritpossession

Professor Stevan Davies has re-published his book Jesus the Healer under a new and probably more appropriate title, Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity, a new introduction on the pentecostal origins of the Christian movement (including an account for comparative purposes of the origins of modern pentecostalism since 1906) and added a couple of chapters on the possible evidence that Christianity emerged out of a form of Judaism we find expressed in the Odes of Solomon. Although some scholars have seen these poems as having been influenced by Christianity Davies argues for the traditional view that they are pre-Christian. And if pre-Christian, they are evidence of beliefs held by certain Jews that eventually had a profound influence on Christianity.

Scholars today (Charlesworth, Lattke) have dated the Odes to around 125 CE, at “the overlap of early Judaism, early Gnosticism and early Christianity.” Davies argues with others (e.g. Jack Sanders) that they influenced Christianity rather than the reverse and that they date from the period 50 – 25 BCE.

Western Syria (which includes the region of Galilee) is the most likely place of their origin.

It should be, but often is not, obvious that there were cultural influences on Galilee, and Samaria, and even Judea that come from the north, from Syria, Tyre, Sidon, Damascus, Antioch, influences on Judaism that were not Judean in origin. (p. 260)

Distinctive features 

While the Odes speak of a Christ figure they convey no hint of any awareness of a Jesus. If we define them as “Christian” they are of a quite different type of Christianity we read about in the New Testament.

Their Christ figure is a human who becomes Christ and who has no particular historical identity.

The Odes share vocabulary and phrases that appear in early Christian documents but the ideas conveyed by these shared expressions are quite unlike anything we associate with Christianity.

They do not mention

  • forgiveness
  • atonement
  • sin
  • resurrection
  • ascension
  • baptism
  • eucharist
  • the name of Jesus
  • any sayings of Jesus
  • any event in the life of Jesus
  • cross or crucifixion

The word “cross” supposedly appears twice in the Odes of Solomon (Odes 27 and 42), but only when translators such as Charlesworth take the Syriac (qaysa) or Greek (xylon), the word for tree or wood and translate it as “cross.” Less tendentious translators do not do this. . . .

Davies suggests that those passages should probably be translated to convey the image of a suppliant stretching his arms upward in prayer like tree branches. They do not depict arms stretched out as if on a cross.

The Odes do remind us of the Gospels with their references to:

  • a virgin and a virgin birth
  • a dove fluttering above the Messiah

But notice how unlike the ideas found in the Gospels these expressions are: read more »

Was Christianity Born from a “Pentecostal” Movement?

william-seymour_crop
William Seymour, founder of modern pentecostalism, and the Azusa Street Revival, are discussed as relevant models by both Hanges and Davies.

I have just completed reading one scholar’s work that does argue that Paul spread Christianity throughout the Greek world by means of such a movement and have begun another that argues the same with respect to Jesus.

1. James C. Hanges

James C. Hanges, author of Christ, the Image of the Church and Paul, Founder of Churches, stresses the importance of cultural theory and the evidence for cultural movements in the Greek and Roman world as vital background to understanding Paul’s letters and career.

Wandering “spirit possessed” preachers of the ancient world

One popular stereotype in the era that saw the emergence of Christianity was the “spirit possessed” traveller who would disrupt communities with his bizarre “signs” of the spirit within him, including the babbling of “tongues”, attracting women predominantly to become his followers, and thought to be introducing new gods or unconventional religious observances.

Anyone familiar with that famous fifth century Greek play Bacchae by Euripides will recognize the above character. I had always thought this play was about the conflict that resulted from the introduction of the Bacchic mysteries (or worship of Dionysus) to Thebes. Hanges, however, references scholarship that suggests this surface narrative was originally understood to be representative of the controversies that accompanied the arrival of any (and many) new religious movements to challenge the status quo.  read more »

Explaining Christian Origins Without Any Theological Baggage

s200_james_constantine.hanges
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. 

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The Pre-Christian Jewish Logos

Probably most people with more than a casual knowledge of Christianity recognise the following words as quintessentially Christian yet are completely unaware that when first penned these words were Jewish to the core:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Daniel Boyarin explains in Border Lines how these words came to be formulated through a Jewish literary process he calls “midrash” and how they are embedded in a first and second century CE Jewish religious culture that had room in which perhaps most Jews assumed a belief in what we might loosely call a second God or a Logos theology. This second God was variously known as Logos (Greek for “Word”), Memra (Aramaic for “Word”), Sophia (“Wisdom”), Metatron or Yahoel. Not that all these names are equivalent. They aren’t. They are a mix of genders for a start. But Daniel Boyarin conflates them all for purposes of his argument because he believes they are “genetically, as well as typologically, related.” (p. 275, and see also the previous post on the wave theory model of religious ideas.)

I’ll try to explain in a future post the actual midrashic process by which the author of the Gospel of John appears to have woven together passages from Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 (and why he did this) to produce the above opening verses.

Where did the Logos come from?

Erwin Goodenough gave a definitive answer to that question in his 1968 book The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and Its Hellenistic and Judaistic Influences:

The Logos then in all circles but the Stoic . . . was a link of some kind which connected a transcendent Absolute with the world and humanity. The Logos came into general popularity because of the wide-spread desire to conceive of God as transcendent and yet immanent at the same time. The term Logos in philosophy was not usually used as a title or a unique attributed of God, but rather as the most important single name among many applicable to the effulgent Power of God which reasonably had shaped and now governs the world. (pp. 140-1)

Boyarin goes a step further and stresses

how thoroughly first-century Judaism had absorbed (and even co-produced) these central “Middle Platonic” theological notions. . . . The idea that the Logos or Sophia (Wisdom, and other variants as well) is the site of God’s presence in the world — indeed, the notion of God’s Word or Wisdom as a mediator figure — was a very widespread one in the world of first- and even second- century Judaic thought. (p. 112, my bolding)

Here is where Boyarin (and a good many other scholars of early Jewish thought) parts company with many scholars of the New Testament. (It seems to me that the latter have a tendency to find ways to dismiss the relevance of Jewish ideas if and where they rob early Christianity of its distinctiveness.) Yet the evidence for first century Jews being familiar with

  • the notion of a great being alongside God himself and acting as God’s vice-regent,
  • or with the idea that such a figure was actually a hypostasis or alternative manifestation of God,
  • or with earthly notables like Adam, Israel, Enoch, Moses and others having pre-existing spiritual forms with especially exalted status in heaven and to which their earthly counterparts returned at death,

is very strong. These sorts of ideas were apparently common in first century Judaism.

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