Christianity Seminar

Spring 2018 Report on Seminar Findings

by Shirley Paulson

The Fourth R 31-4
July/August 2018
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At Westar’s Spring 2018 meeting, the Christianity Seminar addressed the question of how it should report the findings of the seminar in an accessible, meaningful way. To that end, it addressed questions about the process for producing its concluding work, Rewriting the History of the First Two Centuries of Early Christ Movements. As part of that review, the seminar responded to two papers intended as drafts for the content of the book.

Hal Taussig provided the framework for discussion on process with a draft Introduction that summarized the seminar’s work of the past five years. He identified fifteen “shifts” in perspective that moved away from traditionally held views of Christian origins based on a “master narrative.” Two of the responses to his Introduction recommended consolidating the fifteen shifts into smaller, workable subtopics. But all fifteen shifts are summarized here in order to follow the discussion about them.

  1. The beliefs and practices of Christ groups in the first two centuries were very diverse.
  2. Christ groups valued family forms of organization.
  3. Christ groups formed “supper clubs” typical of the Mediterranean world.
  4. Christ groups countered imperial violence.
  5. Women’s leadership, patriarchal rule, and a fluidity of genders were common in Christ groups.
  6. The literature of Jesus and/or Christ groups indicates that they identified with greater Israel.
  7. Much literature in the first two centuries used the figures of Jesus and his followers as ways to reflect what it meant to be refugees and immigrants during that time.
  8. The notions of orthodoxy and heresy were not yet developed, and there was no central authority to define or to enforce them.
  9. Festival meals and washings were important rituals, though practiced very differently than in later eras.
  10. Paul’s letters were most likely regarded as authoritative by the second generation of Christ followers, but were virtually ignored in the second century.
  11. Although an abundance of martyrdom stories far exceeded actual martrydoms in the second century, those stories left a major impact on society.
  12. “Gnosticism” did not exist as a major heretical force opposing Christian orthodoxy.
  13. The New Testament canon developed between the fourth and sixth centuries, not in the second century.
  14. Diversity of portraits and images of Jesus continued to increase even beyond the four gospels.
  15. Much second-century Christ movement literature longed for social unity that was destroyed by the Roman conquest.

Six colleagues, representing those inside and outside the seminar, had been asked to respond particularly to the process of presenting the material for the book. They agreed that new research has caused significant shifts in our views of the ancient past. And Art Dewey commented that whereas many diverse issues still need serious and thorough attention, we also need to keep asking what might still be missing in the research.

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Jeff Robbins recognized that the seminar’s rethinking of the first two centuries of Christ-movements has produced startling results. It exposes the fallacy of the master narrative with its supposed seamless connection from Jesus through all of antiquity. But the news will too easily be lost without a more manageable grouping under perhaps four main topics. He suggests: (1) What do early Christ movements share with other religious groups from the same time? (2) What distinguishes early Christ movements from other groups of the time? (3) What if anything unites these Christ movements? (4) What makes the early Christ movements of the first two centuries still relevant?

The seminar’s rethinking of the first two centuries of Christ-movements has produced startling results.

Lillian Larsen, a scholar of late antiquity, acknowledged the importance of and difficulty inherent in the attempt to dismantle the entrenched master narrative. But she cautions that Taussig’s reframing inadvertently fosters a “new” master narrative, because the process of presenting an unambiguous and clear explanation may well reproduce the very thing the seminar is trying to deconstruct. Taussig had recommended, for example, that the planned book should not include footnotes to scholarly sources. But Larsen argues that limiting access to original sources for readers who wish to cross-check nuanced assessments would result in another authoritative narrative, whereas strategically incorporating primary citations would invite and equip both lay and scholarly readers to explore further.

Two other elements of the original master narrative that would still appear in the seminar’s report include its use of superlatives to describe the seminar’s findings and the masking of discrete voices as they are subsumed into a broader conversation. A new narrative would be more readily accepted if it were told without the hyperbole that appeared too often in the draft of the Introduction. In order to destabilize the habits supporting any all-encompassing narrative, Larsen recommends rethinking some of the structures that have upheld he authority of the master narrative. For example, the long-held loose connections between texts and their messages have proven to be too weak or even false. It is time for the unquestioned consensus among Christian historians concerning the establishment of the master narrative to be reconsidered.

Celene Lillie agreed that sources need attribution. Endnotes and links to online sources are alternatives that could contribute to the argument without using academic jargon. She also argues that the greatest value of studying texts written by followers of Jesus in the first couple of centuries lies in the understanding of people who were thinking of their own lives. Their messages shift our modern imagination, offering us new ways to engage our own problems. For example, as we realize the multitude and diversity of meaning present in the early Jesus movements, we discover how their creativity gives us permission to creatively make the ancient stories usable for meaning today.

Art Dewey also warned against the temptation to substitute one master narrative for another. His advice is to look at every bit of evidence we have with many sets of eyes, seeking images and models that would give the readers a chance to see differently on their own. Multiple issues need attention: gender, community, and martyrdom, for example. But some cameo essays would allow us to get into and discover the significance of slight changes in perspective as well as their connection with larger issues.

Joanna Dewey concurred with Robbins’ suggestion to organize Taussig’s fifteen shifts into fewer subgroups. Starting from the master narrative, she would show the importance of the shifts in three or four different thematic groupings: (1) ways of organizing Jesus/Christ communities, (2) imperial violence and migration, (3) the great diversity of belief, and (4) the lack of central authority in the first centuries. The general message of the shifts from the master narrative is that diversity, including so-called gnostic types of theologies and leadership of women, blended in the general mishmash of Christ movements.

As for process, Judith Perkins agreed with the importance of acknowledging our scholarly sources. There is too much at stake with the challenge of the master narrative for the Christianity seminar to present ambiguous evidence of its findings. Perkins also cautions against unnecessary dilution of Christian identity. As Taussig’s first shift emphasizes, there were many different groups of Jesus followers characterized by a variety of meanings, values, beliefs, and practices. And in the sixth shift, the fact that groups related to Jesus or Christ honored various traditions of Israel also blurred the distinct identity of Christians. However, Perkins argues that even in the early centuries, these movements were distinguished for their commitment to agape-love, the kind of self-giving love associated with the communal meal as symbolizing Christian fellowship. They combatted imperialism, misogyny, and other forms of oppression with courageous affection, or agape-love.

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After further lively discussion on a variety of suggestions regarding process, two papers were presented to demonstrate a range of style for both scholarly and public audiences as well as language shifts about what has traditionally been called “Christian origins.” B. Brandon Scott identifies his piece, “Arch of Titus,” as a cameo essay based on an artifact. Nina Livesey’s paper, “Does Paul speak from the heart?” assesses Paul’s influence among early Christ followers through an analysis of his letters.

Scott uses the triumphal arch of the Roman Emperor Titus to demonstrate both the history of the complicated Roman-Judean relationship and the role of this relationship in the development of Christian thought and history. Scott’s informal writing style informs readers who are not antiquities specialists. But for the student of history, his focus on the artifact’s representation of an important political event significantly shifts the traditional understanding of the origins of Christianity.

The erection of the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum memorializes the siege and sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. It appears to depict the tension between Rome and its Judean territory. But the lesser-known issue related to the arch is its impact on the eventual estrangement of the children of Abraham and their mutual antipathy. Paul and the Q Gospel still provide the only evidence of life among the various groups trying to identify themselves within Israel in the period before the construction of the arch. Scott argues that when Titus was sent to Jerusalem to conclude the “revolt” or “war” against Rome that had begun years earlier, he had not intended to destroy the Temple. It was probably burned unintentionally, but its demise provided Titus with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the prowess he needed to become emperor.

The logic of the building of the arch was imperial logic. By destroying the Temple Titus was presumed to have triumphed over the God of Israel and thus was elevated to divine status posthumously (by his Flavian family). The defeat of the Judeans featured as the greatest conquest in Flavian propaganda, further enflaming the already bitter Judean hatred toward Rome. The Roman conqueror-imperialistic policy toward the Judeans endured through later Roman dynasties, eventually shaping and distorting the ensuing Jesus movements as they separated themselves from their Jewish identity.

Livesey’s study of Paul’s letters undergirds her agreement with Taussig’s tenth shift away from traditionally held views of Christian origins. Biblical scholars have generally read Paul as speaking plainly, without artifice or contrivance, about his own first-hand experience. Livesey’s work cuts against this grain, arguing that Paul carefully constructed his letters to persuade and to stake out a place among his peer group of literary specialists. Her analysis of Paul’s style in the context of the literary conventions of his time led her to conclude that Paul wrote his letters at least in part for his own social-literary peers, and not necessarily “from the heart” as Paul implies and as the Christian tradition has assumed. His letters are neither confidential nor personal. They reveal a savvy strategist seeking to gain acceptance from his contemporary literary peers and claiming authority for himself. This conclusion may align with Jason BeDuhn’s findings (see the Report on the Spring 2017 Christianity Seminar) that Paul’s letters left very little mark on the early second century.

Livesey’s line of argument begins with a deconstruction of Adolf Deissman’s influential early twentieth-century claim that Paul, like Jesus, worked from a humble social position. According to Deissman, Paul depicted the character of Christianity originating in a primitive and pristine social state, in opposition to high culture. By contrast, Livesey finds that all of Paul’s letters were intentional, carefully crafted documents employing the conventions of letter-writing known among literary specialists. In fact, Paul wrote letters with the aim of gaining prestige and authority from this social milieu. He masterfully uses rhetorical autobiography, not to convey historical reality, but rather to elicit audience confidence. Typical of ancient autobiographers, Paul was highly selective in the information he divulges, and his choices signal his intent to identify his authority. He signals his transition from a lower human position to a divinely driven agent for the purpose of claiming a hierarchically superior position to his rivals. This human-vs-divine dichotomy with which Paul presents himself is one of the techniques by which he claims his words are from God, not of his own invention.

Whether Paul’s strategy succeeded among his literary peers or with the recipients of his letters remains unknown. But traditional assumptions of flourishing Pauline communities from Rome to Jerusalem are inconsistent with both the relative silence about him in the early second century and the literary intentions of his letters.

Livesey’s presentation offers a contrasting style for the seminar’s book, as it presents its position with scholarly arguments and lengthy footnotes of attribution and explanation. Her work and Scott’s article both demonstrate the need for, and the challenge of, communicating with the larger public. The seminar is gifted with these contrasting examples offering both scholarly discernment and direct persuasion that is easily accessible.

Spring 2018 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.

Ballot 1—Re-Writing the First Two Centuries of Early Christ Movements

First Shift: Much Diversity in First Two Centuries of Christ Groups
There were many different groups that talked about “Jesus” and “Christ” in ways that had different meanings, values, beliefs, and practices.

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

Second Shift: Family Forms of Organization

Extended family was traumatized in the first- and second-century Mediterranean, yet families were one of the important models for Christ groups.

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

Third Shift: Supper Clubs

In addition to groups following family models, many Christ groups modeled their life together on the widespread practices of supper clubs found in every part of the Mediterranean world.

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

Fourth Shift: Imperial Violence and Early Christ Groups

Most literature about Jesus and Christ reflected a sustained climate of violence and loss at the hands of the Roman empire; even as Christ-related groups countered this violence with pictures of ingenuity, compassion, cleverness, and anger by those experiencing loss and violence.

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

Fifth Shift: Gender

Study of the past thirty years has confirmed that the first and second centuries were ruled by patriarchy. At the same time, it has also found in the Mediterranean public and in Christ groups substantial presence of women’s leadership. Similarly it has shifted to thinking about a number of genders in Christ groups rather than just masculinity and femininity.

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

Sixth Shift: Belonging to Israel

More or less all first- and second-century literature related to Jesus or Christ honored various traditions of Israel. As people, including many not related by blood with Israel, began to identify with Jesus and/or the Christ, they understood that they belonged to greater Israel.

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

Seventh Shift: Christ People and Migration

Some of the most frequent stories and images in these early Christ-related writings evoke the experience of refugees and migrants. In many ways these writings are more about how first and second century refugee/migrants understood who they were than the beliefs and practices of a "new 'Christian' religion."

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

Ninth Shift: Ritual

Ritual practice by Christ-related groups were very important, although there were differences in the way ritual practices happened. The two most widespread and common practices were festive meals and ritual washings. (See the Third Shift on ancient Mediterranean Supper Clubs for additional information).

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

Tenth Shift: Paul in the Second Century

Paul wrote many letters in the second generation of the Christ movements and was almost certainly a significant authority for some (but not all) of the groups to which he wrote. His writings were copied and kept, but in the latter part of the first and all of the second century, the content of his writings were ignored or opposed by many or perhaps even most communities.

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

Eleventh Shift: Martyrdom

The second century produced a number of stories of Christ people being tortured to death by Roman rulers and those stories multiplied for at least the following three centuries. It is now likely that in these four centuries there were more stories than actual martyrdoms. But the power of the stories was very formative for how many people came to see themselves.

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

Twelfth Shift: Gnosticism?

Something called “gnosticism” has been portrayed by many scholars in the last 130 years as the major heretical force that stood over against the emergence of Christian orthodoxy in the second century. In the last 30 years a large number of scholars, including the Westar Christianity Seminar, are asserting that there was no such thing as “gnosticism” in the ancient Mediterranean.

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

Fifteenth Shift: Second Century Longing for Social Unity

The Mediterranean peoples of the first and second century lost much of their sense of belonging even as they made new connections to other peoples. Their tribes and nations were negated by Rome’s conquest of the lands in which they lived. At the same time, because of Rome’s control of vast and different lands, many different groups moved from one place to another. Much Christ-related literature played with these dynamics and imagined peoples’ new places in this bigger world as united to one another, but not under Roman control anymore.

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

Ballot 2—Does Paul speak from the Heart?

Paul’s letters follow standard ancient-letter form.

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

Generally speaking, in his autobiography in Galatians, Paul is strategic with regard to what he says about himself and how he says it.

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

Paul wrote to persuade and used rhetoric to his advantage.

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

Paul was highly selective with regard to his past experiences.

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

Paul develops his autobiography in Galatians antithetically, by means of contrasts.

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

Paul is unique among ancient authors in his approach to autobiography.

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

By comparison to ancient society as a whole, Paul belonged to a relatively small and literate segment of ancient society. He likely associated and self-identified with a literary peer group. By implication, Paul derived his esteem from this group of literary peers, suggesting that this group of peers had an influence on his writings.

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

Ballot 3—Arch of Titus: A Cameo

The impetus for the Flavian policy against the Judeans resulted from the accidental burning and destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

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

What had been the policy of the Flavians towards the Judeans became the policy of succeeding emperors throughout antiquity and then of the Christian church towards Jews.

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

Roman policy towards the Judeans, begun by the Flavians and continued by their successors, is a major context for understanding the emergence of the Jewish and Christian movements.

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

Photo of Shirley Paulson

Shirley Paulson (Ph.D., University of Birmingham), as the first Head of Ecumenical Affairs for Christian Science Church (2008-2018), gained first-hand experience with Christian controversies over orthodoxy and healing theologies. Her focus on the newly discovered extracanonical texts strengthens her appreciation for their importance then and now, as they help to navigate their meaning for contemporary scholarship.

The Fourth R 31-2

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