Seeking a Historically Sensitive Story of Christianity

How do we tell a historically sensitive story of Christian origins? Is it possible to capture the story in a way that honors the many directions Christianity might have taken, and not just the dominant story we see today?And how will you share it with others? Perhaps you tell it like a book, necessarily linear, traveling through the ideas and practices that survived and sparked from one generation to the next. Or maybe a web is a better metaphor, with its multiple strands departing from key, nodal moments—none of which necessarily equals “progress.”

Or perhaps there is another, better metaphor. Whatever the approach, Westar’s Christianity Seminar is arguing that it’s high time we found a model that works. And frankly, any model that begins with the gospels and marches through Paul to the Apostolic Fathers is just not good enough.

Audio: Interim executive director Lane McGaughy expresses the importance of developing a clear model and methodology to describe the emergence of Christianity (his quote comes from Dominic Crossan’s book The Birth of Christianity, 1999). 

The Spring 2014 national meeting laid the groundwork for such a new story. Sessions began with archaeology, touched on the texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, and ended with questions about the advantages and challenges of adopting L. Michael White’s four-generational model of Christian origins.

Many people are familiar with the famous red and black beads used by the Jesus Seminar to vote. The Christianity Seminar will also employ voting, but not yet. At this early stage, the statements generated by the Christianity Seminar are not voting items but contours for future work. In other words, what you can find here are lessons learned in the conversations that occurred during these seminar sessions.

Even so, the statements below are likely to challenge uncritical assumptions held by many people about early Christian history.

A full report on the sessions will appear in an upcoming issue of The Fourth R. The original seminar papers that the Fellows discussed can be ordered in either electronic or paper copies for those interested in reading them. This preliminary report presents material from the Seminar in two parts: conversations and statements. The conversations are audio clips from the sessions—occasions where scholars thought aloud together and pressed one another to consider possible assumptions and new ways forward for understanding Christian origins.

The comments of individual scholars are not cemented into peer-reviewed articles, but rather are open attempts to engage with complex questions. We hope you’ll share your own thoughts and reflections in the same spirit, and give new ideas the benefit of the doubt. The statements are the scholars’ responses to the question, “What have we learned?” These were formulated in the final session of the seminar.

Spring meeting attendees chat in between sessions.

Spring meeting attendees chat in between sessions.

Archaeology and Christian Origins


Clip #1: Daniel Schowalter and Arthur Dewey discuss what archaeology reveals about how social memory works. How do we “make” a memory in a material ways? How do human beings handle the memories left behind by others? 

Clip #2: Joanna Dewey asks Milton Moreland about the malleability of the Apostle Peter in stories that claim he went to Rome. There are many such stories, while it is not clear that Peter actually went to Rome in historical fact. Philip Harland joins the conversation with a question about how competing groups employed their own versions Peter against one another. 

Clip #3: After Emily Schmidt looks at the Gospel of Mark through the lens of Herod’s temple-building activities, Art Dewey asks whether Herod’s activities—specifically, his pantomime of unifying the northern and southern kingdoms—ignited messianic dreams among the people, even if Herod himself wasn’t who they believed would bring such dreams to fruition. 

Clip #4: In response to a question from Robert Miller, Philip Harland describes how slaves and free persons participated in Greco-Roman associations. He goes on to explore what role Paul’s collection might have played in his attempts to claim he and his communities belong to the Jerusalem-based associations who followed Jesus. 

Clip #5: Jodi Magness, Emily Schmidt, and L. Michael White together caution against claiming one group (in this case, the Jews) directly responded to another (e.g., the Christians) by building their buildings or living their lives in a certain way. Rather, this is what it means to belong to and contribute to a particular culture. Utilizing the language and art of the people around you is a natural way to express yourself, without having to see it as a direct challenge or debate about differences. 


There is a material component to identity.

The material manifestation is important to a political identity with respect to Herod and later Titus.

Material manifestation is also important to religious identity, such as the Samson motif at Huqoq, monetary donations, sacrifices, the tomb, and synagogues themselves.

There was the reuse of existing structures made to serve different purposes.

Sacred space is recognized in Greco-Roman polytheism regardless of any single group’s affiliation.

A variety of deities were being honored in the same general site.

An event was the impetus for the symbolic moving of Peter to Rome.

Social memory is a mechanism for the formation of group identity.

Herod creates a Roman identity with the building of his three Augustea.

With Herod’s enlargement of the Jewish temple complex, he not only establishes a Roman identity but also reaffirms a strong Jewish identity(?)

Herod created the Jewish contribution to the imperial image(?)

Flavian propaganda set up Jews as the anti-Roman.

Groups form their identities in and through giving.

Statements formulated in response to Huqoq findings:

In the 5th century Jewish/Christian relations were more flexible and diverse than the rabbis or imperial decrees might indicate.

In the Galilee and other parts of Palestine in the 4th–6th centuries, Jews and Christians lived in separate villages. In urban areas, the populations were mixed.

We know almost nothing about what went on in the synagogue in terms of the liturgy.

Material evidence such as furniture and placement of Torah shrines may indicate diversity in liturgy.

The 5th-century synagogue images are engaging with the Christian message.

Many Jews were still expecting the rebuilding of the temple.

The Jews at Huqoq were expecting a warrior Messiah, demonstrating that this anticipation did not die out (See the Samson mosaic).

Synagogues pre-date the 4th century, but we do not have monumental synagogue art and architecture in the land of Israel until the 4th to 6th century.

Monumental synagogues developed alongside or at the same time as Christian monumental buildings.

Synagogues before the 4th century were rather modest assembly buildings, not monumental buildings.

Diaspora synagogues are not purpose-built buildings.

The Maccabees mosaic raises a question about what is canon in this period.

Daniel Schowalter responds to Jodi Magness' report on her recent discoveries at Huqoq as moderator Joanna Dewey and fellow panelist L. Michael White look on

Daniel Schowalter responds to Jodi Magness as Joanna Dewey and L. Michael White look on.

A Preliminary Look at Nag Hammadi


The Christianity Seminar will be looking in depth at Nag Hammadi in upcoming sessions (check the Westar website in coming months for information on how you can join that conversation). In this session, Hal Taussig and Maia Kotrosits introduced the Nag Hammadi texts and expressed the need for scholars to give these texts more sustained, serious attention for a full story of Christian origins.

Clip #1: Bernard Brandon Scott and Hal Taussig wrestle with the term “Christian” and the pitfalls of naming participants in these early movements by a word they probably did not use to describe themselves. 

Clip #2: Jarmo Tarkki and Maia Kotrosits exchange some thoughts on the problem of anachronistic assumptions about the past. Jarmo shares a modern, humorous example to show the problem of relying too much on the meaning even of a single term to make one’s case, while Maia asks what would happen if we shift our approach from categorical definitions to textured ones, recognizing that even in the same era a single word can mean many things. 


Time is ripe to move beyond literary-critical analysis of Nag Hammadi and to view them with social-historical lenses.

Time is ripe to integrate the study of Nag Hammadi texts into the study of early Christianity.

A diaspora/colonial model is useful for Nag Hammadi and other early Christian texts.

Expressions of hope for unity/unification, honor, value in context of humiliation/social dislocation/violence—what do these suggest for the experience of the authors/communities of these texts?

“Gnosticism” as an analytical category needs full Westar treatment in near future.

John C. Kelly

Westar Fellow Jack Kelly waits for the next session of the Christianity Seminar to get underway.

Models for Reconstructing Early “Christianity”


In this session three panelists—Art Dewey, Joanna Dewey, Bernard Brandon Scott—responded to L. Michael White’s book From Jesus to Christianity (2005).

Clip #1: In response to Art Dewey, Mike White explains what he means by “generations” and thinks aloud about how certain events—”nodal” moments—in a people’s history can mark generations without trying to pin down the exact years too rigidly. Prior to this, Art had also suggested thinking less linearly by describing the development in terms of a network or web, instead of a forward progression. 

Clip #2: John (Jack) Kelly discusses some of the problems of finding and employing models to understand a subject. In particular, he critiques the notion of telling the story of the development of Christianity through a “process to product” model. 


We need to develop and use models for our reconstructions.

We need to break away from a canonically based model.

Canonically based models have a misguided dependence on elite texts and do not account for the majority of extant texts.

Using a chronologically based model is more helpful than a canon model.

The “generational” model is useful for our reconstructions in the Christianity Seminar.

The generational model should combine fixed intervals (e.g., 40 years) and event-focused dates.

The generational model is strongest for the first generation (30-70 CE), possibly the second (70-110 CE), but the later periodization is more complicated and arbitrary.

If we use a generational model, we need to account for these items:

  • Missing data
  • Mixture of generations
  • Changes and developments happened at different times in different places
  • Major ‘nodal’ events
  • Non-elite traditions, rituals
  • Women and other under-represented groups
  • Other possible metaphors: web, network, corporate development

Want to know more about Westar projects? Try “When Was Acts Written? Not in the First Century” or browse the Projects page.

8 replies
    • Cassandra says:

      Sid, thanks for your comment. I personally find the term “at face value” problematic. The Bible, or even just the New Testament, is not that straightforward. There isn’t any single message or story to be taken at face value. Depending on which part of it you emphasize, the story changes. This is why Mike White encourages people to think of the story in terms of “layers” like you would in geology.

      • Hugo Blasdel says:

        “Layers”may not be the most evocative term. In looking at a human body layering is only one part of it. Seen through a MRI, a PET scan, an X-Ray, a sonogram, endocrinology, blood tests, and even the stethoscope, one gets different, dynamic but intricately interrelated views. Perhaps the different aspects of religious scholarship are “lenses” and they are more enlightening as we see them working together.

        • Cassandra says:

          Interesting point. The body is a living thing, too, a signal that our position in the present is also shaping our lens. Reminds me a bit of what I’ve read in science news, the caution that maybe looking for that “everything theory” misses the point that different disciplines come at the same reality from distinct angles and describe it in what may actually amount to incompatible languages.

  1. Ted Tomlin says:

    I am one of your lay members. I started a journey 40 years ago trying to redefine God, Jesus and my Faith. For 30 years I battled on completely alone and, one day came across Westar via John Shelby Spong’s books. How thrilled I was to find that there were about 160 highly qualified theologians who, in more scholarly fashion, were on the same path as I and saying similar things. I was no longer alone and from then on have read and reread most of the well known books.

    From each writer I looked especially for that writer’s idea for the shape of the Church of the future – for we desperately need one before our congregations pass on to the next World. Few writers attempt this. Where there is something, the prose simply is not understandable or clearly impractical. How I responded today to the words

    ‘ it’s high time we found a model that works. And frankly, any model that begins with the gospels and marches through Paul to the Apostolic Fathers is just not good enough’

    What I have read of your recent seminar it seems you are still trolling over things in the past when now we acutely need some solid direction for the future. Please side track the mulling over and get down to the real challenge which faces us.

    • Cassandra says:

      Ted, thanks so much for sharing these thoughts. I’m not sure if you’ve read yet the news that we are preparing to launch the God and Human Future Seminar, which is certainly directed at the question of the future of religion, and so also the church. It is very much in its preliminary stages so I won’t venture to say more than I know. Although it wasn’t the core focus of this most recent meeting, the Once and Future God presentations at the last meeting touched on this subject, and in our books & authors session we discussed Lloyd Geering’s work along a similar vein of “What next?” Several JSORs have also been focused on this topic. What I sense from all this is a building conversation heading in the direction you’ve indicated.

      It’s true that we continue to circle historical questions about Christian origins, but the goal in this case it to tell a story of the movement rather than focusing on specific individuals like the historical Jesus or Paul. It was startling to me to hear Fellows explain at the last meeting that most introductions to early Christian history still begin with the gospels, even though it’s generally accepted (even beyond the Westar crowd) that not only did Paul’s letter came first but still other resources including archaeological research may provide a better picture of the earliest generations. We tend to get too “text-centric” when we’re trying to piece together the past. Speaking just from my own perspective and not attempting to represent Westar as a whole, I wonder how much the mulling and circling is a way to find a new thread forward, specifically by drafting this new story.

  2. M. Laurel Gray says:

    I agree with the comment above about spending too much time analyzing the past without making adequate preparation for the future. One of the problems I’ve noted in attending Jesus Seminars on the road is the lack of young people. People under the age of 50 are not mainly interested in the topics we find in the Progressive Christian (Westar) movement.
    It is not so much, “how to reform the church” as it is to, as someone said, “find new models that work” in this generation. Paul in his generation found models beyond the traditional temple and synagogue motifs. Perhaps that is what we are facing today–something dramatically different that has meaning and purpose for the coming generations.
    We need to listen to the needs of these countless people who are not darkening the church doors. This growing group is sometimes misnamed the “nones”, but we need to heed their voices.

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