Begun in 2013, the Christianity Seminar aims to rewrite the history of early Christianity. The scholars of the seminar have broken through to new understandings of many disparate movements in the first four centuries of the Common Era. In 2021, these historians of religion have published their first major book, the best-selling After Jesus before Christianity.
The book undoes the pretentious “master narrative” of how Christianity emerged. In place of the myth of an orderly apostolic Church fighting heretics, this fresh scholarship has shown how under the thumb of the violent Roman empire a diversity of struggling groups were re-imagining how to belong. The first two centuries did not produce the Church victorious, but rather a plethora of ways for different ethnic groups to re-invent themselves in overlapping units that resisted Roman domination.
Notions of the first two centuries as different kinds of new covenants sometimes tangentially and sometimes centrally related to different Jesuses is not altogether new in recent scholarship. The Seminar is now sketching the arc of a rainbow of emerging movements sometimes in complementary and sometimes contentious relationship to one another; and it is painting accessible portraits of emerging and experimental identities over against Roman hegemony.
Over the past five years the Seminar’s research has reached a number of milestones in reframing new perspectives and undermining the church-based master narrative. Integrating pivotal scholarship of the past twenty years, in 2014 the Seminar voted overwhelmingly to reject the notion of “Gnosticism” as a valid category in the study of the second and third centuries. This opened major ways to interrogate the master narrative’s picture of meaningful “orthodoxy” versus second rate “heresy.” Similarly, in 2015 the Seminar cited major new studies to propose that “martyrdom” themes in early Christ literature had more to do with stories than massive deaths in the second century movements. In 2015 and 2106 the Seminar followed ground-breaking scholarship about the relationship of “Christianity” and “Judaism” in the second through fourth centuries and voted decisively that definitive “Jewish” or “Christian” identities did not exist until at least the fourth century. Nor was there any definitive “parting of the ways” between what eventually became two separate paths until much later. Rather what the master narrative had described as contesting camps turns out to be deeply entangled and mutually nurturing dynamics.
The Seminar continues to grow and has been successful more recently in attracting leading younger scholars and particularly females, a traditionally under-represented group, to its work. The Seminar’s Steering Committee meets monthly and now displays Westar’s burgeoning renewal in leadership.
The Christianity Seminar meets twice annually, with additional work conducted online. Reports from the seminar appear in Westar’s magazine for members, The Fourth R.
You can also read more frequent but informal Christianity Seminar reports on the Westar blog.
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