How Well Can We Know Historical Figures? Not a Rhetorical Question (EHJ series)

"To go forward boldly, it is not necessary to solve every problem of interpretation or to determine a definitive historical Jesus. ... The challenge is to move forward with a human Jesus, not to interpret him conclusively. In the end, being human is exactly about the problem of interpreting others."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

Chapter 1 of 9, "Why the Historical Jesus Is the New Path," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
« Introduction   Chapter 2 »

How well can we know historical figures? These days, it seems like there are so many claims made about the historical Jesus and other famous individuals that I want to throw my hands in the air in frustration. In Chapter 1 of Embracing the Human Jesus David Galston urges readers to recognize that our encounters with historical figures share something in common with our everyday, in-person interactions. That is, we can't know one other completely, and yet we still manage to make things work. It's not a hopeless cause.

Perhaps because I'm an identical twin, I've always been fascinated by the question of how deeply we can know another human being. What struck me as I read chapter 1 this week, is the supreme anxiety that underlies our desire to know. It's like we're holding the other at a certain distance, as a painter would, and saying, "Now hold still."

Jesus didn't hold still for his many ancient portraits, not because he's unique but because he's human. We all fidget; we can't help ourselves. Human beings, as part of this ever-changing world, cannot help but change. As Galston explains, this is a fact of existence, not an insurmountable obstacle. Roy W. Hoover, in his introduction to Profiles of Jesus, illustrates this issue in the context of historical Jesus research:

"The yield of the profiles [of Jesus] is what can be characterized as a collection of studied impressions of Jesus as a figure of history. They are different from the first impressions the young man known as Jesus of Nazareth would have made on the peasant farmers and fishermen, the homemakers and artisans of the small towns and villages of Galilee in the first century ce. We lack the direct access they had to what he looked like and how he sounded when he spoke, and we lack the ability to observe his behavior and what we would call his personality. We are also without that sense of their life situation and prospects that would have affected the way they perceived him.

But that we lack what they had is not the only thing that should be acknowledged. We also have what they lacked: the advantage of hindsight, the comparative capacities of knowledgeable and interested observers from another country, comparable in some respects to the case of the young Frenchman, Alexis de Toqueville, who, during a nine-month visit in 1831–1832, noted things about America that had not been recognized by Americans themselves. Also available to us, but not to them, is not just one, but several texts by different authors, all written within a few decades of Jesus' life, that preserve a selected residue of his life and teaching in the context of their own assessments of his significance." (Hoover, Profiles of Jesus: 2–3, emphasis mine)

Hoover is making what seems to me a helpful point here, that immediacy of contact with a person or place doesn't necessarily equate to understanding it. Direct contact with a person is just a different form of human experience, which doesn't automatically trump the careful reflection of a later generation. Later generations depend on the immediate experiences of their predecessors, but may find things in the story that the original tellers didn't want or expect to matter.  These discoveries are not any less legitimate than the messages of the original tellers, as long as the claims can be anchored to the text and era.

Which brings me to another point. It's easy to get stuck on the variability and limits of knowledge, in part because it encourages greater tolerance for difference. I certainly like being able to say, "How interesting that you think that way. I don't, but I can see your point." But after learning the basic principles of tolerance and open-mindedness, even if we can't apply them as well as we'd like, at some point a person has to take real steps and leave real marks on the world. That requires making decisions, discarding some options in favor of others. As Galston says,

"What we mean by justice, by love, by forgiveness, and by hope is in our hands. These are the forms of life that we create, that we employ, and that we share with one another, but we and not a god are responsible for them. Love does not exist where people refuse to love." (EHJ: 29)

The concrete reality of those actions in relation to the historical Jesus, and rituals that might be associated with them, will come up later in the book. Although the historical Jesus is open to some interpretation, the possibilities are not infinite. If we take all inherited texts about Jesus—those found in the Bible and otherwise—and factor in the basic skills and insights of historical-critical research, we can reasonably squeeze our circle of interpretation into a manageable range. Was Jesus a purveyor of wisdom, or an apocalyptic prophet? These both may fit into the circle based on different arguments, but nobody to my knowledge claims Jesus was a Roman soldier, a woman, or an Italian. These fall outside the realm of realistic possibility. What else can we discard, while still acknowledging a range of options within the smaller circle?

Stone Age Panel of Hands (detail), Source: Anonymous - artdaily.org. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Anonymous, artdaily.org (Wikimedia Commons)

Beyond this question of a basic historical portrait of Jesus, though, I get the impression Galston is pushing for something more immediate to our daily lives. He's pushing us toward connection with others through the uncertainty, a step that cuts through the absolute obedience engendered by an Augustus Caesar, or multinational corporations, or whatever else seems so large we can't overcome it. Hands raised in praise—of Jesus or Caesar—can look alarmingly like hands raised in surrender to the powers that be. To connect is very different. To connect is to reach across a table and offer food, drink, a probing conversation, or basic human touch.

Dare we?

Continue to Chapter 2 » 

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

 

Reading Embracing the Human Jesus: Introduction

"The problem ... is what to do with a Jesus who was human like anyone else."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

This blog launches a hosted reading of David Galston's recent book Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity (Polebridge, 2012). The Seminar on God and Human Futures will convene its opening session at Westar's Fall 2014 national meeting in San Diego, California. Galston is the chair of the new seminar, and his book provides an overview of changing human ideas about God along with ideas for how to put that into practice. You can join the conversation by sharing your own responses to each chapter of the book in the comments section.

Author Note: I'm trying something a little different in this blog post. I'm writing not in any official or general capacity, but in my own voice, as an Associate Member of Westar. This change in approach comes in conjunction with the new role Westar Fellows Brandon Scott and David Galston will soon take as regular contributors to the blog—more on that to come! From now on, you will see an author bio at the bottom of each blog post.

Galston opens Embracing the Human Jesus with a critique of neo-orthodoxy, which prioritizes the Christ of faith over the Jesus of history to such a degree that studies of the historical Jesus are actually unwelcome, even declared impossible. Neo-orthodox language emphasizes "the majesty of human life and the limits of human thought" rather than Truth in the strict sense of traditional Christianity (Encyclopedia Britannica). Even so, by emphasizing the limits of human reason, neo-orthodoxy strictly separates religious truth from the experience of the world. "In fact, Jesus as a strictly historical person interrupts the process," Galston explains. "It seems that the historical Jesus means the end of Christianity, which is why, perhaps, many theologians are terrified of him."

Two questions arise from Galston's introduction for me as a general reader: First, are the neo-orthodox theologians right in saying that we can never really know who the historical Jesus was? Second, in what sense does the historical Jesus mean the end of Christianity?

What Is Possible in Historical Inquiry
Neo-orthodox interpretation has been successful, and popular, because it generates its own heat. There's always a new, universalizing vision waiting to be unlocked from the Christian tradition. We can see this in Desmond Tutu's ubuntu theology. "A self-sufficient human being is sub-human," he explained in a 1992 speech. "We are made for delicate networks of interdependence." According to ubuntu theology, none of us is perfect but all of us are unique, and therefore we all must rely on one another. Tutu championed forgiveness by appealing to the relationship of Peter and Jesus demonstrated in John 21:15–18, a story voted black by the Jesus Seminar. In that story, Jesus asks Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than they [the other disciples] do?" When Peter answers, "Yes, Master; you know I love you," Jesus replies, "Then keep feeding my lambs."  Tutu points out that even though Jesus knew Peter would deny Jesus three times, Jesus still expected Peter to take charge. "It's almost like asking a thief to become your treasurer" (Battle, 1997: 44). By applying a distinctly African perspective to biblical stories like this one, while at the same time appealing to what are otherwise fairly orthodox Christian beliefs, Tutu offers a powerful, prophetic message of radical forgiveness and trust. 

Embracing the Human JesusNotice, though, that there is absolutely no role built into this process for historical inquiry. Historicity quite literally doesn't matter to the telling. We don't have to know whether or not John 21:15–18 is historical to understand Tutu's lesson. The point is the message, as in Robert Graves' 1934 novel I, Claudius, when young Tiberius Claudius is goaded by a pair of quarreling historians to admit, "I see now, though I hadn't considered the matter before, that there are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth."

In the same sense, Galston's caution here applies: "Neo-orthodoxy has no way to critique itself. It is subject to the very problem it sought to overcome, which is the problem of adapting the gospel to cultural norms. ... Since there is no self-criticism (that is, no sense of relativity) built into neo-orthodoxy, its theological claims can defend any position, however ridiculous, that advertises itself as 'counter-cultural.'"

Historical inquiry can help, but as young Claudius realized, such inquiry demands standards. I'm rehashing old territory here, so I won't go too far into it. But one thing I appreciate about Westar's Jesus Seminar is that the scholars didn't conflate the difficulty of historical inquiry with impossibility. They established rules of evidence and gave it a shot. For example:

  • "Sayings and narratives that reflect knowledge of events that took place after Jesus' death are the creation of the evangelists or the oral tradition before them."
  • "Sayings or parables that are attested in two or more independent sources are older than the sources in which they are embedded."

Rules like this are not fail-safe, and of course are open to debate, but they are part and parcel of the historian's task. They keep us grounded. These days we often don't stay with a historian's rules long enough to appreciate why they were offered in the first place. Think of geometry proofs, or better, Plato's Analogy of the Line, in which some aspects of knowledge are available to us only through deductive reasoning.

Image Credit: Amalia Pedemont, La Audacia de Aquiles

It takes effort to stay with an intellectual puzzle. That doesn't make it a fruitless exercise. Historical inquiry is not impossible, and it seems to me that, to quote young Claudius once more, honesty and inspiration are "perhaps not irreconcilable." We can keep the prophetic mode of interpretation awakened by neo-orthodox theology while at the same time expecting the best prophets to do the hard work of linking interpretation to history. Why? Because it serves as an anchor. It's not absolute or cosmic in scale, but it offers the opportunity for inquiry into both truth and morality.

The Historical Jesus as the End of Christianity
Is the historical Jesus the end of Christianity? What is the threat here? Basically, "a strictly human Jesus ... can only be the same as everyone else," whereas the great core of Christianity for generations has been its emphasis on the coming together of human and divine in the Christ figure. It's like the first time you read the Epic of Gilgamesh, expecting the hero somehow to escape "the savage death that snaps off mankind" by remaining awake for six days and seven nights at Utanapishtim's urging. The task seems simple enough, and the prize of immortality a prime motivation, but the great warrior falls asleep the moment he sits down. How very human.

And yet, Galston points out, "there is a momentum to [Jesus'] movement that does not have to be sealed in antiquity." What prophetic visions may come of that? I'm interested in how Galston will define that momentum, and am looking forward to reading his ideas in the coming weeks about what that momentum can look like in terms of praxis and belief in the modern world.

Bibliography

Battle, Michael. Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1997.

Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: MacMillan Polebridge, 1993.

Galston, David. Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdome Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem, OR: Polebridge, 2014.

Kovacs, Maureen Gallery, trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

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

Conversations

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. 

Statements

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

Conversations

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. 

Statements

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"

Conversations

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. 

Statements

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.

Rethinking Judaism in the Ancient World

Judaism was both more diverse and more deeply connected with surrounding cultures than we might think. Jodi Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, challenged attendees of Westar's Spring 2014 national meeting to make some common-sense connections between what we know about how ancient empires worked and what we know about Jewish history. She brought several important insights to life through sharing recent discoveries from her excavation work in a small village called Huqoq in Galilee (read summaries on Jodi's website about important finds from 2011 and 2012, and how you can support the project).

Ancient political and religious leaders may have said an awful lot about how things ought to be—but that doesn't mean the rest of the community listened. Sometimes we rely so heavily on ancient literature to understand the past that we fail to take into account the stories told by the fragments left behind by daily life. Archaeological finds in the past century have cracked open our view beyond rabbinical and other writings to a larger world.

In the fourth to sixth centuries CE in Galilee and other parts of Palestine, Jews and Christians lived in separate villages. Villages had either a church or synagogue but not both, along with other less dramatic but no less important evidence, such as the presence of mikvaot (ritual baths) in the Jewish villages. This has been documented in multiple sites across the region, including in Huqoq. Urban areas, by contrast, had mixed populations. Yet we shouldn't jump to conclusions about inhabitants' relative access to the larger world. In fact, the evidence at Huqoq demonstrates that the village traded successfully and lucratively, so much so that the inhabitants were able to commission exquisite mosaics on the floor of their synagogue.

The content of the mosaics is also fascinating, and exemplifies how one community used their material resources to say something about who they were and what they hoped for the future. To share just one example, at least two mosaics in the Huqoq synagogue depict scenes of Samson. But why Samson? Was he a local hero? No. What else, then? Christians had a generally positive view of Samson because of Hebrews 11:32–33, 39–40. In fact, Augustine even compared Samson to Christ. But what about Jewish communities?

As it turns out, not all Jewish communities thought alike. Rabbinic literature in this period generally portrayed Samson in a negative light because he fooled around with non-Israelite women, but other rabbinic literature played up the similarity of Samson's name to the word "sun," a common metaphor for the messiah. The Samson mosaic in Huqoq also plays with messianic imagery, but not at all in the way the Christians were doing it. In the mosaic Samson is a giant who towers over his enemies, even though the Bible never describes him that way. He is also dressed like a Roman soldier. What we have, then, is an image of a warrior messiah of gigantic proportions triumphing over his enemies.

If we were to rely solely on rabbinic literature from this era, we might be tempted to think the Samson-messiah motif is a fringe notion without much support. Discoveries like this one at Huqoq and another Samson mosaic a few miles away in Khirbet Wadi Hamam call that into question. Importantly, they remind us of the diversity of early Jewish communities and also of the fragmentary nature of our access to the past.

Last but not least, we can also see that the images of Huqoq's desired messiah and the Christian proclamation of messiah are interrelated, and we can remember that these are communities that touch one another. These are communities that jostle for meaning, authority, and authenticity. As Jodi observed in a separate lecture about burial practices in an earlier historical period, Jewish communities did not necessarily reject the fashions and trends of the broader culture, even of colonizing powers. Around the time of Jesus, for example, Jews were readily adopting Roman household decorations and burial practices, and integrating them into their own daily life. There is no need to claim Judaism as a stark category, a definite "other" against which we define all other cultural groups who shared their world. There was no monopoly on Jewishness in the ancient world, anymore than there is today.

We want to express our gratitude to Jodi Magness for sharing her work at the national meeting, and encourage you to continue to follow her project in Huqoq, which promises to be an important contribution to our knowledge of the ancient world.

The Stratigraphy of Christian Origins

L. Michael White

L. Michael White

Stratigraphy is a geological term for the study of "strata," that is, layers of rock—but it's also a useful metaphor for thinking about early Christian history. To look at Christian origins in this way, we've got to step outside the traditional box. For example, which book of the New Testament was written first? Which one was last? If you learned that the Four Gospels came first and Revelation came last, you wouldn't be alone. But this is an outdated way of thinking about the Bible, and there are more historically accurate answers available to us.

The stories about Jesus tell us more about the storytellers than about Jesus himself. Each generation of Jesus followers told the story of who they were, and how they related to Jesus, in a way that reflected their own experiences and concerns. We have material evidence of this in the texts we have inherited, not only in the texts that eventually ended up in the Bible but also in the texts that didn't. L. Michael White, R.N. Smith Professor in Classics and Christian Origins and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin, gave attendees at the Spring 2014 national meeting a Christian Origins quiz and then used the results to help us rethink our assumptions (you can take the quiz and then continue reading, to see how your answers compare!).

Mike White, who published From Jesus to Christianity: How Four Generations of Visionaries and Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith in 2005 and worked with PBS to produce the documentary From Jesus to Christ, warned us not to neglect study of early Jesus movements. It's now commonplace to see debates about the historical Jesus, and has been for several hundred years, but something really interesting happens when we shift our attention to the communities of Jesus followers: the whole trajectory of Christian development changes.

On the micro-scale, when we turn our attention to communities and not just outstanding individuals like Jesus and Paul, we see the enormous diversity of early Jesus movements. On the macro-scale, we see a totally different story of Christian origins begin to take form. While Mike explains his own model of Christian origins most fully in his book, here it suffices to say that early Christian history begins not with the Gospels (which were written by the second generation of Christians) but with Paul's seven authentic letters, the Q source, and Aramaic traditions.

With that said, here are the quiz results. The usual academic disclaimer applies: Mike White reminded event attendees that while scholars of course debate the particulars, here he is presenting a broad overview.

1. What is the earliest writing in the New Testament?

Traditional Answer: Matthew (or the Four Gospels)

Historical Answer: 1 Thessalonians. We have a rare historical resource in Paul's authentic letters in that Paul was directly involved in one branch of the early Jesus movement right after Jesus' death. As direct correspondence from Paul himself, Paul's authentic letters are considered a more primary historical source than other texts available to us, so where Paul differs from other texts that make claims about him (like Acts) it is preferable to defer to Paul's own voice.

2. What is the latest writing in the New Testament?

Traditional Answer: Revelation

Historical Answer: 2 Peter or the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). These texts show signs of the social climate of the second century, including references to church offices that were not yet developed in the earliest generations of the movement.

3. When did followers of Jesus begin to call themselves "Christians"?

Traditional answer: No distinction is made between Jesus followers and Christians. The assumption is that they are one and the same thing.

Historical Answer: Probably around 75‒100 CE. The word appears only three times in the whole New Testament, in Acts and 1 Peter, which tells you about when these texts were written. The earliest followers of Jesus still considered themselves Jewish, and the separation from Judaism differed by location and theology. Remember that the orthodox version of Christianity didn't come to dominate the landscape until hundreds of years after the death of Jesus. Before that the field was wide open.

4. When did the term "Christianity" become recognizable? 

Traditional Answer: Again, no distinction is made between Jesus followers and Christians. Think of modern church billboards and cornerstones that say, "Founded in A.D. 33." What are they saying? That Christianity began with the death and resurrection of Jesus, regardless of the word used.

Historical Answer: The word "Christianity" occurs for the first time in a letter in 115 CE, and is presented as a neologism, a new term based on the word for Judaism. The English equivalent to the Greek would be "Christian-ism."

5. At what point did early Christianity become a separate religion from Judaism?

Traditional Answer: The death of Jesus, or the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE.

Historical Answer: It varied by group and location, but generally this happened in the early second century. Some groups continued to see themselves as Jewish into the fourth century. We need to always keep in mind the diversity of these early groups of Jesus followers.

6. When did church offices (elder, deacon, etc.) become the norm?

Traditional Answer: With Paul, so not long after Jesus' death.

Historical Answer: Early to mid-second century. The traditional answer is based on the Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), which most scholars now view as inauthentic, written in the early second century but attributed to Paul. The book of Acts also claims Paul assigned church offices to people, but like the Pastorals, Acts was written in a later period and does not fit what Paul himself wrote in his authentic letters. When in doubt, it's usually best to trust the more original source, Paul's letters.

7. When did the Four Gospels become the norm?

Traditional Answer: When the last of the apostles died. Often, more specifically, the response is after the death of the last apostle, John (the "beloved disciple"), in 96 CE. (Note that this date is not necessarily considered historically accurate, but is the traditional date given for his death.)

Historical Answer: Around 175 CE, by Ireneaus. Of course, although Ireneaus used it as the norm for his community, other contemporary communities were using different sets of texts. This is still well before the full New Testament canon was established.

8. When did the Jewish canon become "set" as we now know it?

Traditional Answer: Sometime just prior to the life of Jesus (note that there are also Jewish legends that place the canon in roughly this same period)

Historical Answer: 80 CE at the Council of Jamnia, with caveats discussed further under question 9 below.

9. When did the New Testament become "set" as we now know it?

Traditional Answer: With the death of the last apostle, John (see question 7)

Historical Answer:  In the late fourth century (ca. 394 CE), when the Council of Carthage set the Latin canon of the West. The Church Fathers Jerome and Augustine were present, so we can be sure the event was important. But again, this doesn't mean all diversity was squashed. For example, the oldest complete manuscript of the Bible, Codex Sinaiticus, which dates to around 400 CE, contains a scrap of the Epistle of Barnabas and also the Shepherd of Hermas, which was read in the Eastern church. This kind of variation is also true for the Hebrew Bible, especially the Apocrypha. For example, the Wisdom of Solomon follows the Song of Solomon in the Codex Sinaiticus. The Apocrypha didn't really get formally excluded until the King James Version of the Bible in 1611, under the influence of Puritan translators. Even then, individual communities resisted this after the KJV translation.

10. Name all the NT & early Christian texts written during the first generation of the movement.

Traditional Answer: the Gospels

Historical Answer: Paul's letters, Q source, and Aramaic strands of tradition (the first gospel was Mark, written around 70 CE when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed). However, this question is presupposing we all know what the "first generation" really was. How did you define the first generation?

11. When did the first generation of the Christian movement end?

Traditional Answer: With the death of the Apostle John in 96 CE

Historical Answer: Question 10 about the earliest texts proves to be a bit of a trick question. Mike White suggests the first generation ends with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, because the texts that follow suggest its destruction left the community groping for new stories that would make sense of this unexpected turn of events.

12. When did the Catholic Church begin?

Traditional Answer: The Apostle Peter founded the Catholic Church as the first pope.

Historical Answer: This is difficult to answer, and depends on what criteria we use to define the Catholic Church. Mike left it open-ended.

We are grateful to Mike White for sharing his work with us and challenging us to rethink our assumptions about Christian origins. We'd love to hear readers' thoughts. How did you fare on the quiz? Let us know what you think, and/or what you learned traditionally and how that might have changed over time for you.