This issue of Forum features two sets of papers presented at Westar events in 2017—the first two at the Spring meeting in Santa Rosa and the second pair at the Fall meeting in Boston. All four of the papers challenge long-established views about Christian origins, whether about assumptions regarding the esteem granted to the founders of Christianity or about the development of the Eucharist meal.
The Spring papers were presented in a special session on apostolic authority in which I made my Westar debut with “Cursing and the Apostle: The Fight for Authority in Early Christianity.” The paper grew out of my work on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a text that features tales of a young Jesus blinding, maiming, and killing his fellow villagers in Nazareth. To understand why Jesus would be portrayed this way, we have to consider attitudes toward cursing in the ancient world. The paper begins with a survey of sources for both cursing and curse stories—from narrative literature, to inscriptions, medical texts, treaties, and magical implements—in canonical and noncanonical sources, as well as in texts and artifacts from contemporary cultures. Biblical curses and curse stories appear in many forms—such as the exploits of prophets like Moses and Elisha, as well as in oracles and psalms. These have not escaped scholars’ attention, but there seems to be a resistance to recognizing the same phenomena in Christian material, even though the canonical Jesus does curse (only a fig tree, but he also pronounces woes on his enemies), as do his apostles (in several episodes in Acts, and perhaps also in references to the power given to them by Jesus to perform “signs and wonders”). After the survey of sources, the paper turns specifically to the exploits of the apostles in the canonical and noncanonical acts and to Paul’s letters. In the various acts, the apostles use curses in competition with other religious figures to demonstrate their power and the might of God. Beneficent miracles are performed also, but curses seem to be equally effective for gaining converts. In Paul’s letters, the apostle curses his opponents, including those who proclaim a gospel contrary to his own (Gal 1:8–9) and those who have “no love for the Lord” (1 Cor 16:22). Anyone in antiquity could utter curses, and it was widely believed that they could be effective, but certain figures, such as holy men and rabbis, were considered particularly adept. The apostolic curse stories depict the apostles cursing, and then the readers witness the result of the curse, demonstrating that the apostle, and by extension other Christian leaders and saints, wield the power and authority of God. Let no one stand in their way.
In the same session, Jason BeDuhn, author of The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon (Polebridge 2013) delivered his paper, “The Contested Authority of Paul in the Second Century.” Scholars have often assumed that Paul was esteemed for his theological—as well as ethical—views from the start, just as he is today. But BeDuhn argues that Paul was relatively unknown until the middle of the second century. Few texts mention or allude to Paul’s letters before that time, and even those that do need to be evaluated carefully—apparent quotations may be simply stock phrases or shared metaphors, and some of the Pauline material may have been added to the texts later in their manuscript transmission. The change in opinions on Paul may have come as a result of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, which led to gentile Christians distancing themselves from their Jewish-Christian forebears and contemporaries. At the same time, and perhaps for the same reasons, Marcion severed Christianity’s ties to Judaism by dispensing of Jewish scriptures and assembling his Christian-only canon: the Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s letters. Orthodox Christians may have seen similar value in using Paul to emphasize their ties to the gentile mission, and perhaps even adopted Marcion’s collection of letters as their own, while also creating several additional anti-Marcionite texts—Acts, 2 Peter, James, and the Pastoral Epistles—to rescue Paul for orthodoxy. Even so, orthodox writers tend to minimize the content of Paul’s letters, perhaps as a reaction to Marcion’s interpretations, and focus more on Paul as the founder of particular communities or portray him as subsumed under the authority of the Twelve. BeDuhn’s characterization of some NT texts as anti-Marcionite may be hard for some to accept, but overall his paper is a valuable corrective to the assumption that Paul was always valued as a theologian and thereby provides an argument for moving away from using them as a guide for modern Christian thought and practice.
New ways of examining the origins and development of the Eucharist meal inform the second pair of papers. In “Changing Courses: Eucharistic Origins,” Andrew McGowan argues against the notion that the Eucharist meal essentially arrived as something entirely new and fully-formed in the lifetime of Jesus or Paul. Instead, McGowan considers the original meal as a somewhat normal practice for its time, but now obscured by the sacramentalism of the Last Supper accounts. Early Christian meal events were simply shared community meals, though they could have early taken on some ritualistic aspects—they need not be one or the other. McGowan cautions, however, that even the presence of bread and wine at the meals would reflect everyday practice in the ancient world. Other food may also have been consumed in the early banquets, but it is possible too that restricting the menu to bread and wine would help to avoid the problem of consuming meat dedicated to idols (1 Cor 8:4–13). At some point the community meals transitioned into the Eucharist-only sacrament; McGowan places this development in the third century, with the addition of a morning Eucharist ceremony and the gradual abandonment of the evening banquet, perhaps as a result of the difficulties of feeding an ever-growing community. McGowan’s paper demonstrates the value of scholarship on ancient meals and, as with BeDuhn’s examination of Paul, the dangers of assuming Christian practices remained static from their inception.
In the final paper, “The Ritual of the Hellenistic Meal: Early Christian Everyday Practice as an Exegetical Challenge,” Soham Al-Suadi develops Hal Taussig’s work on the Eucharist meal as a typical Hellenistic meal, which was a site of “social, political, and religious experimentation.” Like McGowan, AlSuadi sees the origins of the Eucharist meal in the everyday practices of the ancient world. But it is important to understand that even an ordinary communal meal could be the place of transformation. So Al-Suadi examines the earliest account of the Christian banquet from Rom 14:1–12 and looks at what it reveals about Christian identity formation. In essence, Paul was faced with a tension between Jews and gentiles at the table and sought a remedy to the tension between them to “minimize the disruptive state of experimentation.” The decisions about identity made at the meal—on how the menu settles differences between Jews and gentiles—then continue after the meal, influencing daily life. Al-Suadi moves from comparisons to Hellenistic meals to the creation of a new hermeneutical method that combines socio-historical criticism with ritual theory and applies it to portions of Paul’s letters related to the Eucharistic meal. She focuses on several aspects: the terms of identification used for the participants, how the order within the meal ritual influences the interconnectedness of those involved, and what the order of reclining during the meal reveals about group and individual identity. As a result, the exegete becomes acutely aware of how participation in the Eucharist at once provides an opportunity to break or transcend social divisions, reflects the tensions that exist in the larger community, and seeks to resolve their differences in pursuit of forming a new group identity. Most interesting about Al-Suadi’s discussion is her argument that the birth of Christianity was not a singular, remarkable event; rather, it arose from the everyday experience of communal meals, occurring wherever Christianity had taken root.