Christianity Seminar

Fall 2016 Report on the Parting of the Ways

The Fourth R 30-2
March/April 2017
Download the PDF version

At its November meeting in San Antonio, the Christianity Seminar took two more major steps in writing a new history of early Christianity. In many ways this meeting was even more surprising than the previous four. In those meetings assumed truths fell apart and new images of what those early movements did and thought came together. The idea that Christianity came into being through the triumph of orthodoxy over gnostic heresy fell apart. The notion that thousands of Christ followers were martyred turned into savvy stories with few deaths. The heroic Jesus became the paradigmatic immigrant. And the early families in these Christ movements ended up more works-in-progress than idyllic mommies, daddies, or celibate loners.  

Not Judaism, Not Christianity

In San Antonio the Seminar took on the huge issue that has haunted the Seminar’s first three years: when and how did Judaism and Christianity became separate religions? Focusing on the work of Daniel Boyarin, a rabbi and renowned scholar of Judaism, the Seminar rejected the idea of a parting of the ways of Christianity and Judaism before 300 ce. Rather, mostly in agreement with Boyarin, the Seminar’s votes showed a consensus that there were no such separate entities as Judaism or Christianity in the first two hundred years.

In mostly red and pink votes, the Seminar saw many complicated combinations of practices and beliefs in the first two centuries, none of which lined up with the mythic notions of Judaism or Christianity. The ballot proposal, “The second century is generally too early to use the term ‘Christianity’ as definitive for what is happening,” was overwhelmingly affirmed by the Seminar members, seventeen of whom voted red, eight of whom voted pink, and none of whom voted gray or black. Similarly—and again in agreement with Boyarin—the ballot proposal, “The second century is generally too early to use the term ‘Judaism’ as definitive for what is happening,” the Seminar members voted thirteen red and twelve pink, with no gray or black votes.

In contrast to the lore of some Westar Seminars, the Christianity Seminar continued to provide not just deconstructive positions that undo assumed truths, but constructive descriptions that might creatively replace the inaccurate conventional pictures of the first two centuries. A strong example of this was the ballot item that read “Terms allied with the word ‘Israel,’ used not just as a geographical term, but as a metaphor of belonging, work well for the complications of second century identities and relationships.” Eight Seminar members voted red, fifteen voted pink, two voted gray, and none voted black.

Other ballot items that developed new ways of historically picturing the second century were strongly affirmed at the San Antonio Seminar meeting as well. Two ballots in response to Seminar co-chair Maia Kotrosits’ characterization of various second-century movements were given an average red vote by the Seminar. Another—“The loss of the nations in our stories of the appearance of Christianity strongly related to the way in which Roman imperial belonging erased local ties and affiliations over time”—helps show that, as Rome broke many communities’ connection to their destroyed nation, early stories about Jesus were not so much about religious beliefs as about remaking group identities.

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Portraits for the American Public

A new stage of the work of the Christianity Seminar’s larger `project of rewriting a history of early Christianity began at the San Antonio meeting. Seminar plans for a major book on the first two hundred years took shape as two members of the Seminar Steering Committee produced chapterlength draft portraits of specific aspects of the first and second century. Professors Phil Harland and Hal Taussig wrote graphic descriptions meant to be comprehensible to a general public with a high school education.

Harland’s portrait, “Climbing the Ethnic Ladder: A Portrait of Interactions Between Judeans and Other Peoples” laid out a larger picture of how first- and secondcentury Mediterranean societies experienced tumultuous ethnic competition and melting pots. According to Harland, that time period brought separate peoples into interaction in unprecedented ways, resulting in many multi-ethnic mixes and clashes. This portrait places some early Christ groups’ enthusiasm for the experience of “neither Jew, nor Greek … but all are one in Christ” (Gal 3:28) in a much clearer context.

Harland’s treatment of the ways the early Christ movement referred to ethnic groups was, however, not at all romantic. In his survey of different ways that various ethnic groups put other peoples down, he analyzed many such prejudices in the writings of Paul. According to Harland, when Paul characterizes “his own ethnic group in relation to all others … he uses the phrase ‘we ourselves, who are Judeans by birth and not failures from among the peoples.’” On the other hand, Harland acknowledges,

Paul is also concerned to posit that there is in some other sense “no difference between a Judean and a Greek” in terms of potential adoption or inclusion in God’s people if people “call” on the Lord or are “baptized into Christ” (Rom 10:12; see Rom 3:1–18, 22; Gal 3:28). The lack of distinction also relates to Paul’s notion that both Judean and Greek are equally condemnable and equally saveable.

Hal Taussig’s portrait, “Hidden Transcripts of Violence and Partial Recovery in the First Two Centuries” (forthcoming in The Fourth R) started with an actual picture on a massive plate from an even more huge display of the glories of Rome in the city of Aphrodisias in Asia Minor. This plate called to mind a haunting classical story of how the glorious military heroine Penthesileia was killed by Achilles, who fell in love with her as she died. The depiction of Achilles tenderly holding the dying Penthesileia understatedly calls the violence of the victor into question.

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The essay then proceeded to examine two stories, a song, and a poem from the second-century Christ literature that resisted, made fun of, and reflected upon violence, mostly by Roman forces. One of the stories was from the Gospel of Luke, while the other was composed out of whole cloth by Taussig but “recounted” a second-century story of loss, violence, and joy. The song, from the Book of Revelation, was a triumphant mocking of Rome’s vulnerability, and the poem came from a recently discovered second-century text.

These portraits of real people amid Roman violence unfurled the way much early Christ literature functioned— what sociologist James C. Scott calls “hidden transcripts” of the ways common people pushed back against violence with humor, joy, resolve, and anger. Taussig suggested that the “artful hiddenness of these powerful textual portraits of loss, trauma, and violence did allow” ancient readers “to think and feel deeply about their circumstances.” Instead of seeing “the scripture” of these early centuries as primarily religious documents, “these bundles and threads of such literature about violence have surprising twists, humor, and melancholy along with a certain disinterest in tragedy.”

In the four texts that make up the overall portrait,

It seems clear that making sense of the violence the first and second centuries saw and experienced was very important to the ancient writers and readers of these writings. These people needed to come to grips with seeing neighbors, strangers, or their own family humiliated, tortured, robbed, enslaved, maimed, impoverished, and killed. The clever, if indirect, ways that the texts addressed a wide variety of violence testifies to how much it mattered to them to think, feel, and come to terms with it.

Harland’s and Taussig’s portraits are either early drafts of or preliminary suggestions for chapters in the eventual very public-oriented, collaborative book the Christianity Seminar aims to produce.  

A New Tradition

Finally, in San Antonio the Christianity Seminar started a new tradition of honoring a winning essay in a year-long contest of writings by graduate students in the study of early Christ movement and Christian literature. This initial winner of this new tradition was “Decapolis Death Worlds: Necropolitics, Specters, and Gerasene Ethnicity among the Tombs” by Peter McClellan of the Drew University School of Theology. The paper was presented as a part of the Christianity Seminar.

Fall 2016 Ballot Items

Westar academic seminars conduct periodic votes on propositions related to their research topic. Both scholars (Fellows) and public members (Associates) cast votes in response to scholar presentations and recommendations. Voting does not, of course, determine the truth–it only indicates what the best judgment is of a significant number of people sitting around the table. Learn more about this tradition at Westar.

Judaism and Christianity arose in relationship to one another, using the same tools and cultural resources to construct themselves against one another.

Fellows...Somewhat Agree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

There is no essential distinctness between Judaism and Christianity before 150 CE.

Fellows...Somewhat Disagree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

The nations (ethnoi) as well as the loss and erasure of national belonging are integral in the stories of the appearance of Christianity.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

The loss of the nation in our stories of the appearance of Christianity is strongly related to the way in which Roman imperial belonging erased local ties and affiliations over time.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Paul, in Galatians, strategically reforms the Judaism of his day so that everyone, Jew and gentile alike, can adhere to the God of Israel through faith.

Fellows...Strongly Disagree...Associates...Strongly Disagree

Paul, in Galatians, strategically attempts to convince his gentile audience to reject the demands of his opponents and not adopt Torah regulations, especially that of circumcision.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho, is in the business of determining who is a Christian and who is not.

Fellows...Strongly Disagree...Associates...Strongly Disagree

Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho, uses various strategies to convince Trypho, representative of certain Jews, of the superiority of his reading of scripture to that of Trypho and his teachers. As such, the Dialogue makes apparent how Justin’s readings differ from Trypho’s.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

A vocabulary of “rabbinic Judaism and Christian Judaism” makes much sense of relationships of the many movements and communities in the second century.

Fellows...Somewhat Disagree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

The second century is generally too early to use the term “Judaism” as definitive for what is happening.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

The second century is generally too early to use the term “Christianity” as definitive for what is happening.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Terms allied with the word “Israel,” used not just as a geographical term but as a metaphor of belonging, work well for the complications of second century identities and relationships.

Fellows...Somewhat Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

The artful hiddenness of powerful textual portraits of loss, trauma, and violence allowed many early Christ-related texts to think and feel deeply about their circumstances without putting their writers and readers in trouble with the Roman rulers.

Fellows...Somewhat Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Making sense of the violence the first and second centuries experienced was more important than dogmatic concerns to the ancient writers and readers associated with Israel and Jesus.

Fellows...Somewhat Disagree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

"The ways modernity has … covered over the deep social and interior ancient work on how to live with heartache and torture" caricatures central meanings of second-century traditions of Israel and Jesus.

Fellows...Somewhat Agree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

The second century range of Jesus-related texts do not reflect a consensus or common message about violence, but share a strong interest in addressing violence and its effects.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Strongly Agree

Hal TaussigHal Taussig (Ph.D. The Union Institute) is Professor of Early Christianity at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and an ordained United Methodist pastor on special assignment by his bishop. For the past fifteen years, he has served as visiting Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Taussig is the editor of the award-winning A New New Testament (2013), and author of fourteen books, including In the Beginning Was the Meal (2009), A New Spiritual Home (2006) and Jesus before God (1999).