Challenging Common Conceptions of Early Christianity
Preface, Forum 4,2
All the essays in this issue seek to resolve longstanding conundrums and/or to challenge reigning assumptions pertaining to early Christianity. Some, such as Dennis MacDonald’s “John’s Radical Rewriting of Luke-Acts” and Dennis Smith’s “How Acts Constructed the Itinerary of Paul” do so in new and inventive ways. Each paper was presented during a session of Westar’s ongoing Christianity Seminar, begun in the spring of 2013. And each one contributes to the Seminar’s goal of the re-evaluation of early Christianity.
Dennis MacDonald turns to redactions of episodes of Homer’s Odyssey to answer the question of the relative chronology of the canonical gospels of Luke and John. MacDonald first argues for evidence of Mark’s redaction of Od. 19 in John’s gospel (Mark 14; John 12), indicating John’s reliance upon Mark. MacDonald then indicates John’s dependency on Luke’s anointing scene for his own similar account (Luke 7:37–38; John 11:2; 12:3), and then how John is also indebted to Luke’s imitations of Homer’s Od. 24 (Luke 24; John 20) for his narrative of the revelation of the risen Jesus. Evidence of Luke’s redaction of Homer in John provides good indication that John in fact post-dates Luke.
The papers by Richard Pervo and Dennis Smith both deal with the canonical book of Acts. Having already argued at length in his Dating Acts: Between the Apostles and the Evangelists for a composition date of c. 115, Richard Pervo turns in his essay “Acts in Ephesus (and Environs) c. 115” to an exploration of provenance from the perspective of the work’s author. Clues from other New Testament writings suggest that Ephesus is a likely location for Acts. According to Pervo, the book of Revelation evinces a “liberal Paulinist group” in Western Asia during the first decade of the second century. Shared themes between Acts and the Pastoral Epistles, known for their association with Ephesus, provide additional evidence of Ephesus as Acts’ origin. Both the Pastoral Epistles and Acts show a concern to suppress heretics, indicate the presence of questionable teachings in Ephesus, and similarly describe the roles of church leaders.
Contrary to much scholarship on the book of Acts that denies Acts’ knowledge of Paul’s letters, in his “How Acts Constructed the Itinerary of Paul” Dennis Smith convincingly argues just the reverse. The author of Acts knew of and indeed relied upon Paul’s letters to construct an itinerary for Paul, one that conforms to Acts’ favorite themes.
Jason BeDuhn’s cogent essay causes a rethinking of traditional assumptions about Marcion. BeDuhn argues convincingly that the view that Marcion mutilated biblical texts to conform them to his heretical theology is not tenable, as the texts preserved by him do not support the heretical views attributed to him. Marcion should instead be seen as someone who preserved and compiled a series of texts that came into his possession. Marcion’s work in compiling these texts—the first known Christian to have done so—served to relocate authority into fixed texts.
The final two papers of this issue are companion pieces and deal with Nag Hammadi texts. They serve as a preview for an upcoming issue of Forum dedicated exclusively to the topic of Gnosticism. In her essay “Social Fragmentation and Cosmic Rhetoric: Interpretations of Isaiah in the Nag Hammadi Codices,” Maia Kotrosits challenges the traditional understanding that Gnosticism is a viable category and, as a distinct entity, is focused on otherworldly subjects and concerns. Based on her analysis of four Nag Hammadi texts, The Reality of the Rulers, The Secret Revelation of John, On the Origin of the World, and Apocalypse of Adam, Kotrosits argues instead that these texts are, like Second Isaiah, diasporic productions produced in response to displacement and colonialization. Like Second Isaiah, the Nag Hammadi texts are concerned with the social and political issue of how groups redefine themselves as “Israel” in the wake of war, displacement, and colonial powers.
In his “Second-Century Imaginations of Social Unity,” Hal Taussig places the canonical post-Pauline Letter to the Ephesians in dialog with several other Nag Hammadi texts: The Gospel of Truth, The Letter of Peter to Philip, and The Thunder: Perfect Mind. Like Kotrosits, Taussig also implicitly questions the category of Gnosticism with its otherworldly emphasis. Taussig argues that this group of texts seen together provides indications of a response to various types of societal violence, all of which originated in the second century ce. The Letter of Peter of Philip, for example, evinces a threat of Roman rule and in contrast to its reading under the rubric of Gnosticism has a this-worldly orientation. Taussig is interested to explore ways in which experiences of various types of violence prompted visions of social unity.
—Nina E. Livesey
University of Oklahoma in Norman