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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.