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 But this is an outdated way of thinking about the Bible, and there are more historically accurate answers available to us.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.