Report from the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins
Stephen J. Patterson, Chair, Steering Committee
From The Fourth R
Did Christianity begin with the resurrection? No. Did Christianity begin with Pentecost? No. Did it begin with Paul, then? No. Did it begin with Jesus? No. As the first meeting of the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins un- folded it soon became apparent that the search for the beginnings of Christianity might turn out to be every bit as elusive as the quest for Jesus himself.
In the first session of the new seminar, fellows began by testing the proposition, favored by many theologians of the twentieth century, that Christianity began with the resurrection. More recently, scholars like N.T. Wright and James Dunn have argued that, apart the physical resurrection of Jesus, it is scarcely possible to imagine the continuation of the movement Jesus created. His death would have constituted a crisis of faith of insurmountable proportions. But the Fellows of the seminar roundly rejected these ideas. Responding positively to position papers by Daniel Smith of Western Ontario University and Joe Bessler-Nothcutt of Phillips Seminary in Tulsa, they agreed that resurrection claims were a way for early followers of Jesus to express their faith in him, but were not the origin of that faith. Moreover, they agreed that Jesus’ preaching was not focused primarily on himself—say, his status as messiah or Son of God. He spoke, rather, of a new kingdom—or empire—of God, as a way of life to be pursued. His death, then, would have been understood not as the embarrassing defeat of a failed messiah, but as the noble death of a martyr who died in devotion to the cause he espoused, the kingdom of God. If this was so, then his death, far from creating a cri- sis of faith, might well have given the Jesus movement new energy, a phenomenon often associated with the death of a hero. The claim that Jesus was raised from the dead could well have originated among those who regarded Jesus as a martyr to the cause and purposes of God.
In the next session, Fellows took up a central feature in the story of Christian beginnings, the miraculous event of Pentecost, as depicted in Acts 2, where dozens of followers of Jesus suddenly begin to speak in foreign languages, so that those gathered from distant lands can all hear the gospel in their own tongue. Following the lead of position papers offered by Shelly Matthews of Furman University and Todd Penner of Austin College, the Fellows endorsed the position of most critical scholars studying Acts today, that the story of Pentecost was created by Luke (the author of Acts) in an effort to write a story of Christian origins that would inspire his readers to emulate the great deeds of founder figures like Peter, Stephen, and Paul. Fellows agreed that charismatic gifts like glossalalia (speaking in tongues) were common among the first Christians. But they also recognized that Luke’s account in Acts 2 is a highly stylized and circumscribed presentation of that phenomenon. For example, one may infer from Paul’s references to glossalalia in First Corinthians that this was phenomenon that involved both men and women, and per- haps even slaves. But Matthews called attention to the fact that, in Luke’s story of Pentecost, women and slaves are not among the prophets. A vestige of the older tradition may still be seen in the prophecy from Joel preserved in the traditional speech of Peter in Acts 2:17-21. But in Luke’s tory all the lead characters are men. Fellows agreed with Matthews, that the resulting heroic narrative was designed to appeal to elite Roman men, and to create a Christian story in which they would feel at home and important.
On the second day of the Seminar the Fellows focused on Paul. Did Paul create Christianity, as Nietzsche famously argued—a view common among nineteenth- century scholars as well? The assertion implies that Paul did not really understand or accept the simple views of Jesus and the Jesus movement, and so created the complex theology we have come to know as Christianity today. But it turns out that this old hypothesis no longer commands the assent of scholars. To the propositions, “Paul was the founder of Christianity” and “Paul was intent on constructing a new religion” the Fellows agreed with the recommendation of Arthur Dewey of Xavier University, and voiced a resounding “no.” Instead, they generally embraced a growing consensus among con- temporary scholars that places Paul closer to the views of Jesus and the early Jesus movement. While dividing over the controversial issue of Paul’s view of women—the texts involved are of questionable authenticity—they tended to endorse the position that like Jesus, Paul was a dissident voice in his culture, and advocated a community life in which differences in social rank and ethnicity were to be overcome.
In this session Fellows also considered the question of when Christianity would have been recognizable as a new and distinct religion in the ancient world. They agreed overwhelmingly with the proposition, “Christianity began as a movement among Jews; it would not become recognizable as a distinct new religion until many years later. . . .” Exactly how much later was left open for further investigation. Nevertheless, to speak of “Christianity” in the generation following Jesus’ death was quickly recognized as an anachronism, and Fellows struggled to arrive at language that would correctly characterize the situation.
In the final session the Fellows considered the proposition: Christianity began with Jesus. Throughout the twentieth century it was a theological commonplace to regard Jesus and his ideas as the presupposition to Christian faith, but not central to that faith itself. Christian faith was not the faith of Jesus, but faith in Jesus. Testing this older idea produced one of the most lively and contentious discussions of the weekend. The Fellows rejected the simple proposition that “Christianity began with Jesus,” but also seemed to reject the older notion that Christian faith was necessarily faith in Jesus. They endorsed, by a very narrow margin, the thesis presented in a posthumous paper by Robert W. Funk, the founder and first chair of the Jesus Seminar, that “Christianity began when Jesus used imaginative language to call into question his received life world in favor of the life world that emerges in his parables and aphorisms.” In other words, Christianity began with the preaching of Jesus. Philip Devenish’s formulation: Christianity began with the Jesus-kerygma (that is, the repeated words and deeds of Jesus) not the Christ-kerygma (that is, preaching about Jesus), received a slightly stronger endorsement, with most objections having to do with the anachronistic use of the word “Christianity.” When polled on the proposition “Jesus of Nazareth should be included in the discussion of Christian origins,” more than 80% of the Fellows strongly agreed, signally a new approach to this old question.
The origins of Christianity—understood now as a movement among Jews, not a new religion—lay not in the mystery of the resurrection or the miracle of Pentecost, or even in the creative imagination of Paul the Apostle, but in the ideas and practices of Jesus and his first followers.
The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins seem to have shied away from the idea of a “big bang” account of Christian beginnings. Christianity emerged slowly, and in many places, as the convictions of Jesus and his followers took root and developed. In the coming years, the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins aims to investigate how those ideas and practices took shape in particular places and over time.
At its Spring 2007 meeting, the Jesus Seminar on Christians Origins will begin its work in earnest by asking what we can know about the character and claims of the earliest Jesus Movement in Galilee. On the docket will be early texts like Q, or traditions shared by Q and Thomas, or Mark and Q. What do these texts and traditions sound like when placed in the concrete cultural context of first century Galilee?
Explanation of colors used in voting
- R true
- P probably true
- G probably not true
- B not true