Christianity Seminar

Fall 2017 Report on Ritual Life in Early Christ Movements

by Hal Taussig

The Fourth R 31-2
March/April 2018

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As the Christianity Seminar continued to move toward a public book that will summarize its findings about the first two centuries, the Fall 2017 Seminar’s findings on the rituals of “Christ groups” summarized and updated important scholarship of the last twenty-five years. Focusing on festive meals and bathings/baptisms, clear pictures emerged that were quite different from those held by conventional Christianity and indeed most scholars.

The Seminar found a clear, primary concentration in the first two centuries on a tradition of communal meals. The papers presented and the ballots taken underlined the centrality of these meals in some contrast to a much more diffuse and fragmented picture of ritual bathing/baptism.

Papers on the communal meal traditions by Soham Al-Suadi (University of Rostock in Germany), Lillian Larsen (University of Redlands in California), and Andrew McGowan (Yale Divinity School) described a consistent and elaborating focus on eating together which came out of the larger and growing phenomenon of a Greco-Roman meal tradition. Focusing on the first century, Al-Suadi summarized groundbreaking scholarship of the past twenty-five years that connected texts of the first-century Christ movement closely with the widespread customs and traditions of Hellenistic meals and elaborated a “ritual exegesis” strategy and process for studying the Christ group practice. Continuing their important scholarship of the last two decades, Larsen and McGowan provided a picture of sustained Christ group and early Christian meal practices in second- and third-century monastic and emerging church traditions.

Larsen’s larger scholarship on monasticism confirmed and extended her own cutting-edge findings of the centrality of monastic meals and their connections to meals outside monasteries in the first through third centuries. Her presentation allowed the Seminar to think more deeply about monastic meals in the under-reported second century and to take into account the significance of monasticism in the preservation and development of both meals and texts.

These three papers presented a coherent picture of early Christ people’s primary ritual in the first two centuries, and even into the third and fourth centuries. These results are all the more significant in that the general public and many scholars do not really know this picture of the common meal in these centuries.

Stephen Patterson and Hal Taussig addressed bathing/ baptismal rituals in complementary ways. Both papers were written for a broad audience, and Taussig’s was especially tailored to fit into the Seminar’s plans for a public book on its work. Both scholars strongly critiqued the lack of critical analysis in twentieth-century scholarship on ritual bathing/ baptism. Both bemoaned the tendency of previous scholarship to presume orthodox and unified meanings and practices of such water rituals.

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This critical attention to bathing/baptismal practices in the first two centuries was not just new to the Christianity Seminar, but in many ways to all of scholarship. Both Patterson and Taussig proposed a major deconstruction of the idea of a unified early Christian meaning for baptism. Patterson emphasized at least three different meanings of baptism already in play throughout the first century. Taussig severely criticized the nearly universal scholarly assumption that translating baptizo—the Greek word for washing or bathing—simply by transliterating the Greek into an English word gave meaning to a special ritual. Patterson and Taussig proposed their own historical reconstructions of meanings and practices for such ritual bathings.

Patterson’s reconstructive proposals focused on connections between John the Baptist’s practice and preaching and their possible spiritual interpretations by the first-century teacher Apollos who “baptized” people with the Spirit. Patterson suggested that both John the Baptist and Apollos, a colleague and competitor of Paul in Corinth, taught and practiced that in baptism people received and experienced the presence and full reality of the kingdom of God. This similarity between Apollos and John the Baptist provides, for Patterson, “the missing link” between John in the Judean Jordan and the “Christians” taught by Paul in Asia Minor. However, Patterson argued, this crucial historical link is not evidence that all early Christian baptisms were practiced the same way or shared the same meaning.

Taussig also proposed a new way to think about a variety of ritual bathing traditions throughout most of the Mediterranean, including the dispersed people of Israel and various Christ groups. Less interested in finding a missing link between John the Baptist and Paul, Taussig gave evidence of a wide set of ordinary and somewhat similar ritual bathing practices in many different Mediterranean settings that effected a washing away of failures, losses, and mistakes. He pursued this picture of bathing and washing rituals within the Israel-based and early Christ groups, noticing how such Israel- and Christ-related practices also worked for a broader set of nationalities and ethnicities.

Approaching “John the Bather” from a different angle, Taussig rooted the quirky success of John’s public bathing practice in the socio-political experience of Judeans under Roman military occupation. He proposed that John’s experimental bathing galvanized first-century Judeans’ resentment of Roman rule as well as their own renewed sense of belonging to Israel.

Although the fresh proposals of these two scholars stood over against a mostly unquestioned scholarly tradition that generally assumed baptism had the same meanings in the ancient and modern worlds, this session solidified new critical approaches to the early bathing/ baptism practices. It is now clear that the Seminar will announce to a larger public and academy that much new research and thinking must be done to make further sense of what have been long-neglected key issues for rewriting the history of early Christianity.

Fall 2017 Ballot Items

Westar academic seminars conduct periodic votes on propositions related to their research topic. Both scholars (Fellows) and public members (Associates) cast votes in response to scholar presentations and recommendations. Voting does not, of course, determine the truth–it only indicates what the best judgment is of a significant number of people sitting around the table. Learn more about this tradition at Westar.

Ballot 1 - Soham Al-Suadi

The Ritual of the Hellenistic Meal

Early Christianity was a diverse social movement reflected within very widespread meal practice.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Christ-believers’ meals together made sense with Paul’s heterotopic1 idea of the communitarian body of Christ that Paul expressed regularly in his letters.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Paul concentrated on utopia2 and made it heterotopic because the social, political and religious matters are not of utopian imagination but of diverse communal experience in daily life and meal practice.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

Ballot 2 - Andrew McGowan

Changing Courses: Eucharistic Origins

There is no reason to think that Paul intended a separation of token food rite from community banquet, let alone that his early readers took him to suggest that, or did it. Rather the evidence for early Christian meals clearly supports the continuation of evening banquets with both religious significance and dietary substance for centuries thereafter.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

In the second century the morning event3 is not “the Eucharist,” but a different setting or situation at which the Eucharist—the meal elements, understood to have undergone some sort of transformation—is received.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Somewhat Disagree

In the third century the Eucharist did not “evolve” from one form to the other; rather the Eucharist made a sort of jump from one setting to another, but both settings had existed and both continued. The pre-existence of the morning gatherings has been mentioned; the afterlife of the banquet deserves a little more attention.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

The change in the nature of the Eucharist in the third century is a sign of other changes in the character of the Christian movement as a social formation. The analogues with collegia4 have broken down here; the Church seems more and more a new kind of entity, whose character escapes the boundaries of acknowledged models and is in effect seeking new ones.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Ballot 3 - Lillian Larsen

Monastic Meals and Ritual Practice

Extant monastic5 Rules offer an instructive counterpoint to early monastic pictures of ascetic practice. Balancing, and at times challenging a rhetoric of harsh ascetic abstinence, discrete regulatory traditions refract the ritualized rhythms of monastic life. Arguably unique to this environment is an institutional setting where all of life is progressively infused with the meal’s tensive, utopian, ritualized character.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Like their Graeco-Roman and proto-Christian counterparts, emergent monastic meals provided ritual contexts for “thinking about, experimenting with and negotiating social structures, personal relationships and identity formation.”

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

The demographic texture that seeps through the wider hagiographical6 record offers its own argument for the narratives that link the large and small, young and old settings. Gathered at table are the wealthy and poor, elite and rustic, literate and illiterate, young and old, self-indulgent and spartan, cosmopolitan and agrarian, hospitable and solitary, propertied and orphan, clergy and lay, runaway and recruit, peripatetic and indigenous, Greek, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Ethiopian.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Ballot 4 - Hal Taussig

Washing Dogma off Baptismal Practices

Christ-movement-related washings belong to a larger first and second CE Mediterranean practice of ordinary washings primarily focusing on the exercise of leisure, righteousness, and virtue.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

Christ-related-movement washings/baptizing of the second century were deeply indebted in practice and meaning to the quirky success of John the Bather’s public bathing practice that galvanized first-century Judeans’ resentment of Roman rule as well as their own renewed belonging to Israel.

Fellows...Somewhat Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Later Christian misunderstanding and ignorance of the meaning of “baptizo” retrojected the existence of a common and unified meaning and practice onto the diversity of firstand second-century Christ-movement washings.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

The Acts of the Apostles pictured within the deep threads of Israel-based bathing practices a washing away of failures and ingrained mistakes as an integration of resolve, renewal, remorse, and discovery.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

Ballot 5 - Stephen J. Patterson

Baptism: A Pre-History

The history of early Christian baptism is more complicated than Lukan salvation history.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

In the days of Paul, baptism was not yet the universal rite of initiation by which people joined in the Jesus movement or became part of a “church.”

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Luke ignored Paul’s understanding of baptism and instead proposed that in baptism the Spirit entered Jesus and directed him on his path; for Luke it was through baptism that the Spirit entered the church and directed its path.

Fellows...Somewhat Agree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

By the end of the Pauline era there were at least three distinct understandings of baptism in the Jesus movement. One imagined that baptism conveyed the Holy Spirit to the baptized and transformed them into children of God. A second understood baptism as initiation into an egalitarian community. A third imagined baptism as a ritual participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection that ensured life beyond death.

Fellows...Somewhat Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

1. With the technical term “heterotopic” Al-Suadi summarizes her emphasis on Paul’s application of the “body of Christ” to a great variety of communitarian settings.

2. Al-Suadi focuses on the way Paul imagined utopia in the variety of communal experiences rather than in social, political, and religious rhetoric.

3. McGowan parses differences between the festive evening meals “Christians” had for the first several centuries and a new practice in some places which was not a full meal and happened in the morning.

4. McGowan addresses the ways that communal associations (collegia in Latin) of the first and second centuries were less strong and numerous in third century.

5. Larsen summarizes her paper’s proposal of a particularly imaginal and tension-filled meal setting within monastic communities.

6. Larsen uses “hagiographical” to describe monastic writings as imbued with an exaggeratedly holy characteristicization of the meals.

Photo of Hal Taussig

Hal Taussig (Ph.D. The Union Institute) is Professor of Early Christianity at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and an ordained United Methodist pastor on special assignment by his bishop. For the past fifteen years, he has served as visiting Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Taussig is the editor of the award-winning A New New Testament (2013), and author of fourteen books, including In the Beginning Was the Meal (2009), A New Spiritual Home(2006) and Jesus before God (1999).

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