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Incomplete history

Daniel Boyarin and the Christian Invention of Judaism

How did Judaism and Christianity become separate religions? There are three problems with this question: the words religion, Christianity, and Judaism! These words have evolved in meaning over time, and it simply isn’t possible to separate them out so neatly. Nevertheless, renowned Jewish historian Daniel Boyarin helped to puzzle out the conundrum at the Fall [...]

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The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire: An Interview with Heidi Wendt

Christian Martyrs: Neither Uniform Nor Legion

Christianity SeminarChristianity has long been celebrated as the religion that triumphed over Rome—and hence, the world—by the blood of its many martyrs, people who died because they were unwilling to compromise with Roman practices such as sacrifice to the emperor. “I am a Christian,” these unruffled martyrs would state before an unsympathetic judge, often while their families stand to one side pleading for them to relent, after which they are condemned to gruesome, torturous deaths.

Especially after the start of the reign of Decius in 249 ce, martyr stories exploded in popularity. A handful date at or before that: the Martyrdom of Polycarp; Leontius, Hypatius and Theodulus; the Passion of the Scillitan Martyrs; and Perpetua and Felicitas. The Acts of Paul and Thecla also involve multiple, thwarted attempts at martyrdom, even an incident involving killer seals (yes, you read that right!). The story of Perpetua and Felicitas is especially compelling, full of emotion and powerful visions, including one in which the young noblewoman Perpetua defeats a fearsome “Egyptian.” In what is likely a fictional diary account, Perpetua describes being thrown into a dark, dank prison followed by a heartbreaking scene in which her aging father begs her on his knees to remember her family, especially her young son, for whom she also worries. Nevertheless, she stays the course. In a vision that plays on her own maternal care for her earthly child, she climbs a bronze ladder guarded by a dragon into an immense garden:

In it a gray-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb; tall he was, and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said, “I am glad you have come, my child.”

He called me over to him and gave me, as it were, a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: “Amen!” At the sound of this word I came to, with the taste of something sweet still in my mouth. I at once told this to my brother, and we realized that we would have to suffer, and that from now on we would no longer have any hope in this life.

Artistic renderings of women martyrs often fail to represent the calm and control the women exert over their deaths. Instead, they are often painted in helpless, anguished positions. This painting (unattributed?) of Perpetua comes close by showing her at the moment she pulls the sword across her throat. Notice how her hand is positioned to draw the sword closer rather than push it away.

As moving and dramatic as these stories are, evidence from the earliest generations of the Jesus movement does not support the claim that martyrdom was widespread and systematic. Douglas Boin’s Coming Out Christian in the Roman Empire provides a helpful vignette of the conversations about martyrdom that took place among the scholars of Westar’s Christianity Seminar at the Spring 2015 national meeting:

Even after A.D. 313, when Christians didn’t have any legal reason to fear “coming out” anymore, many kept on doing two things at once. They visited the racetrack on festival days, when Rome’s gods were honored. They went to baths, where Rome’s gods were honored, too. They lived hyphenated lives.

Many of these quieter Christians have been tucked away for years behind bigger names, labeled martyrs, but I think they have something important to tell us about the rise of Christianity. The Christian men and women who learned to juggle being both Christian and Roman played a role in raising the profile of their movement, too—not just their more opinionated peers. (5)

Without implying that persecution is a complete myth—death in the arena was a reality for many people in the Roman Empire, and Christians no doubt were among the troublemakers condemned to it—nevertheless scholars cast serious doubt on claims that large numbers of ancient Christians were systematically harmed and killed as a result of their faith. Among the voting items put forward were the following:

Jews, Christians, and Christ people were executed by Roman imperial agents and government. Recommendation: red (agree)

First- and second-century Christ people and Christians were systematically targeted for execution by Roman imperial agents and government. Recommendation: black (disagree)

In portions of the last half of the third century and very early fourth century Christians were systematically targeted for execution by Roman imperial agents and government. Recommendation: pink (somewhat agree)

For those of you unfamiliar with Westar Seminar voting, a red vote indicates that you agree with a statement, pink means you somewhat agree, grey means you somewhat disagree, and black means you disagree. We always try to formulate positive statements for clarity’s sake, so sometimes the recommendation will be to vote red, sometimes black, as you can see in the examples above. Both scholars and members of the public followed the recommendations: this means there was a general consensus that, while Jews, Christians, and Christ people were likely executed, the execution was not systematic, that is, not heavily targeted at these groups. It might be fair to say that early Christ people were carried along on the waves of general Roman violence, in that their “deviant” behaviors were not treated that differently from other forms of deviance frowned upon by the empire. At the recommendation of Carly Daniel-Hughes of Concordia University, scholars and members of the public voted red the statement:

While some early Christians invested heavily in martyrdom, other Christians (perhaps the majority of them) complied and compromised with Roman authorities to avoid death and physical harm.

The question of the exact motivations and concerns of these early followers of Jesus remain complicated, however, in part because of the diversity pointed to by Daniel-Hughes based on a case study of early martyr writings in North Africa, especially those of Tertullian (160–220 ce). “Even among those people who are promoting martyrdom, or constructing it, or theorizing martyrdom in North Africa, they don’t all agree on what martyrdom is, what it means, and particularly what the martyr symbolizes.” Some viewed martyrdom as intermediaries, possibly anticipating the cult of the saints. Others, like Tertullian, was adamantly against this view of martyrs and wanted to limit the effects of martyrdom to personal benefit for the individual only.

Maia Kotrosits of Denison University sought to intervene in the standard view of Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred sometime during the reign of the Trajan (98–117 ce), that is, that he died as a result of being a Christian and as a key figure in the emergence of orthodox Christianity, especially over against Judaism, as though his only context is one of an emergent religion. “I suggest this is not just an anachronistic picture but a somewhat romantic one [that] ignores a whole set of historical forces and factors,” she said, and advocated for seeing him as situated in a web of forces including “Judea’s recent and ongoing longings for and failures to recover some level of national sovereignty.” Susan (Elli) Elliott, an independent scholar and author of Cutting Too Close for Comfort (2003/2008), echoed this concern in terms of how we do history:

Why was Ignatius arrested? … There are latent assumptions about which side of history we’re reading from. From the side of the people who get arrested, the rationality is not as clear as if we’re looking for rationality from the Roman Empire. We see that today: Was the young man shot because he was a threat or because he was perceived as a threat? The question that brings those two together is, “What was the threat that was perceived?” For the Roman Empire, it may be just that he [Ignatius] was assembling people.

Judith Perkins of Saint Joseph College (Emerita) called upon the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgia Agamban to draw attention to the way political states relegate certain groups to nonhuman (by implication, nonvaluable) status, what Agamban called “bare life.” Rome employed violence regularly to exert control through war, killing games, and so on. “To take life is the quintessential sign of power and control in this environment,” she explained. “… The Empire’s overarching attitude was that it wanted no trouble, no social unrest, and nothing to upset the community’s ability to contribute to the imperial center.”

While scholars and the public agreed with (voted red) Hal Taussig of Union Theological Seminary’s proposal that “discursive martyrdom played a significant role for Jews, Christians, and Christ people in negotiating and strategizing their relationship to imperial violence,” scholars more tentatively endorsed the possibility put forward by Kotrosits that the real issues at stake were “questions of sovereignty, belonging, diaspora, and social integrity/vulnerability” (voted pink). Public participants were more willing to entertain this possibility, and voted it red.

Coming at the question of motivation from yet another angle, Christine Shea of Ball State University wondered aloud whether martyr stories set out to do what a patrician would do to honor a dead leader, while Bernard Brandon Scott of Phillips Theological Seminar (Emeritus) continued the rich parallels and borrowings from Roman culture to put forward the following proposal about Paul based on the presentation of his new book The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Voice (2015):

Paul understands Jesus in the noble death tradition, not sacrificial atonement. Recommendation: red (agree)

This approach to Paul depends on sorting out an enormous number of translation issues, common misunderstandings about how Paul understood himself in relation to the Jewish tradition, and the continuously frustrating problem of separating Paul’s authentic writings from texts written in his name. Watch the blog next week for a separate, more detailed post (and radio interview!) about this issue. Here it suffices to say that both scholars and members of the public followed the recommendation and voted it red.

More can be said here about the noble death tradition. To flesh this out, Elliott presented a detailed story of Roman gladiator culture alongside martyr stories. Gladiators, though slaves, came to represent Roman identity (Roman virtus) in a powerful way. Christians coopted this strategy, in a sense claiming to be “more Roman than the Romans” in service of a spiritual rather than physical empire. Several ballot proposals were put forward, including this one:

As presented in the narratives of their deaths, the Christian martyrs became icons for Christian identity in a Christian vision of the Empire much as the gladiators functioned as icons for Roman identity in the Roman Empire. Recommendations: pink/grey (somewhat agree/somewhat disagree)

One theme that has persisted across the entire Christianity Seminar since it launched, and which emerged throughout the martyrdom discussions, is the acknowledgement that the Roman Empire was the backdrop and primary opponent/competitor in the eyes of early Christ followers—in other words, the Jews were not seen as their primary opponents, contrary to the claim made in the book of Acts of the Apostles. Indeed, it is likely that many/most early Christ followers saw themselves as Jewish or at least compatible in some way with Judaism. As Scott observed, what was the Christian peace if not competition with Roman peace (the Pax Romana)? Elliott elaborated this further by pointing out parallels between Roman gladiators’ willingness to tolerate pain for the sake of honor and Christians’ willingness to tolerate pain for the sake of allegiance to their God. Both scholars and members of the public followed Elliott’s recommendation and voted this statement pink.

All of these questions must also be considered through the lens of how the martyr stories were practically employed by successive generations of Christians. Why have they survived for us to read today? Jennifer Wright Knust of Boston University reminded us that martyr stories were physically bound together with biblical texts in the same codices (books). Our modern separation of texts in the Bible from other texts written in the same historical era is not at all representative of how Christians were reading these texts even in late antiquity, at least through the sixth century ce, and in medieval times. Knust worked closely with the material evidence, in many cases even traveling to the locations where the manuscripts are actually housed so that she could work directly with them. This experience caused her to question a popular way of studying the New Testament and early Christian history:

Ruinart [in his Acta primorum Martyrum sincera published in seventeenth-century France] attempted to identify which of the martyr acts were authentic—what was true and what was fiction. He wanted to know. He ignored, as most who edit these stories do today, the practical use of the stories by ancient and medieval Christians, which is why we have them at all, because they were read in largely liturgical contexts and other kinds of devotional settings. This habit with martyr stories of attempting to fix the text … to establish the historical truth of that account or not, and to remove legendary accretions and excesses from texts, seemed very familiar to me as a New Testament scholar.

The obsession with “what’s the real text” and “what’s the real truth” in New Testament studies can cloud our understanding of how texts were used in late antiquity. The martyr stories in fact “promiscuously mingled” with canonical texts (the texts of the Bible). It’s important therefore not to separate texts artificially where they were not separated by early Christians. Knust’s full presentation can’t be summarized here, so please watch for a separate report on this topic.

Want to know more? If you found this report interesting, you might like to learn more about Westar's Christianity Seminar. Find the report on Jennifer Wright Knust's presentation on martyr stories and canonization here: "Historical Reasons Not to Limit the Contents of Your Bible." You can also browse all the Spring 2015 Meeting reports.

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Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. 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. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

Restoring Books Excluded from the New Testament

Why were certain books excluded from the New Testament? “The stunning truth is that we have hardly any evidence of the process of how the canon was made. By and large, we don’t even have evidence for the character of the debate,” explains Westar Fellow Hal Taussig, who presented A New New Testament November 23rd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center as part of the Westar Institute Fall 2014 national meeting. “The most we have is an individual scholar [in the second through fifth centuries] saying, ‘I like this book; I don’t like that one.’”

Why did those in power decide to “close” the canon, or collection, of texts that now appear in modern Bibles? Was the decision experienced as oppressive, as foisting certain groups of people like the Valentinians out of the fold? Or did the people who made these decisions actually seek to protect a certain amount of diversity, such as by keeping the Synoptic Gospels Mark, Matthew, and Luke alongside the Gospel of John, or Paul’s Corinthian correspondence alongside the pseudo-Pauline Pastoral Letters 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus? It’s difficult to know.

Even today there is no one ultimate collection of “Christian” books. It’s even possible that the New Testament didn’t truly narrow the playing field—and biblical literalism didn’t truly have a leg to stand on—until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. After all, even the best scribe can’t hand-copy verbatim every time. Notes with corrections appear in the margins at the very least, and the entire discipline of textual criticism in biblical studies involves grouping manuscripts into families based on inherited variations in the texts.

Incidentally, should it be of interest to you, scholars of Islam are also fascinated by the question of accuracy but (1) tend to focus on the life of Mohammed rather than the text of the Qur’an, and (2) as a result, must work largely with oral traditions. This is called isnad, the chain of transmission that accompanies stories and sayings of the prophet Mohammed. The classification system is complex and accounts for issues such as broken or unreliable transmission, and closeness to the source. Reader beware: as with the study of early Christianity, the study of Muslim isnad is riddled with theologically motivated logic, so seek out a reputable scholar.

A New New Testament

Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Back to the subject at hand. Hal Taussig is the editor a twenty-first-century Bible  called A New New Testament (ANNT) that combines traditional and newly discovered texts. The new texts were selected by a council of nineteen religious leaders and scholars. Many of the new texts came from a remarkable collection found in 1945 in upper Egypt, popularly known as the Nag Hammadi library. This discovery revolutionized studies of early Christian history but has not achieved the same level of public recognition as the equally outstanding discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One audience member at Taussig’s presentation asked, “How much of the squirreling away of Nag Hammadi texts is political, and what can we do to bring these texts into public view?”

“What I would call Christian fear and scholarly timidity is political,” Taussig responded. “By and large, churches haven’t needed to act against these discoveries because scholars have already done that so well. The public has both creative and commercial force to put behind these new materials. Let’s get to know the texts as a public. Let’s allow sophisticated, complicated discussions to take place around them.” On this blog we’ve been reading Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? and discussing some of the political and ideological issues related to the study of the Nag Hammadi texts, so I won’t get into those issues here. The gist of it is the creep of theological ideas into historical research. Many researchers who perhaps embrace Christian beliefs personally or at least are heavily steeped in Christian traditions have continued to give the canonical texts first place in any story of Christian origins. Anything that didn’t make it into the Bible is automatically treated as secondary, suspect, or impure.

Maybe the best thing to do to honor Taussig’s presentation, then, is to share a sampling of these texts here. Of the many Nag Hammadi texts Taussig introduced, let’s look at one: The Thunder, Perfect Mind. Here’s a translation of the full text, but I also quote it below.

The Thunder, Perfect Mind is an extended poem known as an aretalogy—the divine being who self-reveals, who talks about himself or herself. This was a popular form in the ancient world. Here is an example of an aretalogy of the goddess Isis dated to the second to first centuries BCE. It opens with the writer explaining his/her reason for daring to write in the name of the god, then launches into aretalogical language:

Taking heart, I proceed to what remains, knowing that this encomium is written not only by the hand of a man, but also by the mind of a god. And first I shall come to your family, making as the beginning of my praises the earliest beginnings of your family. They say that Ge (Earth) was the mother of all: you were born a daughter to her first. You took Sarapis to live with you, and, when you had made your marriage together, the world, provided with eyes, was lit up by means of your faces, Helios (Sun) and Selene (Moon). So you are two but have many designations among men. For you are the only ones whom everyday life knows as gods. (Trans. G. H. R. Horsely)

This sort of language probably sounds familiar because it also occurs in both Hebrew Bible and New Testament texts like the Gospel of John. What makes Thunder, Perfect Mind unique over against traditional early Christian texts is the presence of a predominantly feminine voice. For a sense of the conversations this can open up, try comparing verses from Thunder and John.

The Thunder, Perfect Mind (1:1, 5–7; 2:1–2)

I was sent out from power
I came to those pondering me
And I was found among those seeking me…
I am the first and the last
I am she who is honored and she who is mocked
I am the whore and the holy woman
I am he the mother and the daughter
I am the limbs of my mother
I am the sterile woman and she has many children
I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband
… I am the silence never found
And the idea infinitely recalled
I am the voice with countless sounds
And the thousand guises of the word
I am the speaking of my name…

The Gospel of John (1:4–5, 11–13)

That which came into being in the Word was life
and the life was the light of humanity
and the light shines in the darkness
and the darkness never overpowered it.
… He came to his own—yet his own did not receive him.
But to all who did receive him he gave power to become children of God—
to those who trust his name,
not through blood nor through will of the flesh, nor through the desires of men
but through birth from God…

As the Christianity Seminar also urged people to do, we need to read these new texts alongside traditional texts to begin to visualize what kinds of conversations were happening in Christianity before it became the religion of the Roman Empire. Separating them into arbitrary groups doesn’t help. Thunder and John, especially when read in full, share several themes, including the following at minimum:

  • A being, sent out from power/God, comes to those who seek and are open to receiving
  • This being takes the form of Word—the name of God or a personification of God
  • This being, though divine, shares the full gamut of human experience, both honor and mockery/humiliation
  • The speaker uses paradox to convey a sense of vastness within this single divine being and at the same time encourages the human seekers to share in that feeling (or even recreate it)

“Besides the Gospel of John’s Jesus and Thunder, no other ancient (or modern) divine voice presents itself as simultaneously both so glorious and so humiliated,” writes Taussig in ANNT (180). Virginia Burrus, the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion at Syracuse University, sees this kind of writing not as a sign of a "personal crisis" in which Jews became alienated with their tradition—one reigning explanation for the existence of "gnostic" texts—so much as a response to the powerful Roman empire:

[Hans] Jonas' (suspiciously orientalizing) syncretism and alienation are pointing toward what might be reframed as hybridity and ambivalent resistance to empire/colonization, characteristics which arguably mark all products of early Roman (and earlier) Hellenism, yet differently and to different degrees." (personal communication quoted in King, What Is Gnosticism? 189)

My own response to this text is startled acknowledgment that the writer knew Paul's letters. When I was working with the editors of the Acts Seminar Report, I learned that in order for an historian to claim that one author is alluding to another, by definition enough of the original has to be carried into the new work to give itself away. That happens in Thunder. "Why then do you hate me, you Greeks? Because I am a barbarian among barbarians?" (Thunder 3:3) alludes to 1 Corinthians 9:20 and Romans 1:14–15. In some ways the whole poem is a meditation on Paul's statements like this. "Advance toward childhood; Do not hate it because it is small and insignificant" (Thunder 4:5).

The malleability of the speaker, speaking for the divine, also suggests s/he is emulating Paul, with one crucial difference that I find fascinating: Paul doesn't mention sayings of Jesus much, but the writer of Thunder draws on both Paul's letters and Jesus' empire of God sayings. "Do not stare at me in the shit pile, leaving me discarded; you will find me in the kingdoms ... In my weakness do not strip me bare; Do not be afraid of my power" (Thunder 2:13, 17). The poetry that resulted is beautiful, but its very difference is a strong reminder that in the study of history we need to leave room for creativity and spontaneity, too.

What texts have you read outside the standard New Testament ones, and what did you discover? Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below

[divider style="hr-dotted"] 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.