A wise official in the Roman Catholic bureaucracy once explained how he viewed a letter he got from those higher up. “Holy mother church,” he said, “in her care for all her numerous members, does not have time to write a letter just to me. She must be concerned for all her members. So, I will take out of this letter what was meant for me and leave the rest for those for whom it was meant.” Such is my approach to writing a preface to these papers. These essays are rich and will reward your careful reading. In this preface I will highlight what struck me as important.
These papers share a questioning and challenging of the traditional categories that have been used to understand the first two centuries of development among the various movements and groups that emerged around the figure of Jesus. Furthermore, they are interested in the groups and their formation, not the development of beliefs or doctrine. And they all agree that the use of later categories to understand an earlier period has distorted and misunderstood that period. The study of the first two centuries has mostly been done through the eyes of the fifth century. These papers were presented at the Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 meetings of Westar Institute’s Christianity Seminar.
My paper, “If Not Christians, What?,” takes on the fundamental category of Christianity. Despite its title, the Christianity Seminar has long agreed that there is nothing in the first two centuries that is equivalent to Christianity of the fifth century and later. If we should not use the word Christian for the first two centuries, what should we use? First, there cannot be a single term, because that is simply a sleight of hand for “Christianity.” One must reject essentialist thinking, looking for the essence, and instead describe the variety that exists.
Then I examine what the Latin and Greek words mean in the second century. Finally, the paper suggests a protocol for naming the second-century communities, groups, schools, and clubs.
Chris Shea, “Some Observations on the Evolution and Politics of Roman Imperial Canons,” and Jason BeDuhn, “Becoming a People of the Book,” investigate issues surrounding canon. Shea suggestively explores how canon arose in the Greco-Roman world from a surplus of writings attributed to an author. The archetype is Homer. What was “real” Homer and what was pseudo Homer? Canon was the result of this sorting process. BeDuhn demonstrates that in the first two centuries those movements associated with Jesus Anointed developed no canon. This was a period that was creating what would become a surplus of writings. But there is no evidence of anything like “scripture,” nor any extensive use of writings as authoritative. The collection of Paul’s letters was not so much the beginning of a canon but the founding documents of those communities associated with the memory of Paul. Even in the case of Marcion, his two-fold division was not a proto-canon, but the rules for the foundation of the community.
Deborah Niederer Saxon, “What’s at Stake When ‘Heresy’ Sells?,” and Markus Vinzent, “Orthodoxy and Heresy,” both agree that the binary orthodoxy/heresy misconstrues the second century. Saxon maintains that the debates between these teachers and schools arise not from doctrine but from practice. She explores how this works in regard to martyrdom. Vinzent shows that Irenaeus’ use of the Greek word hairesis corresponds to the normal Hellenistic usage. It means “opinion,” especially in a philosophical sense, and by extension a “school.” Thus, Irenaeus is not attacking a false belief that must be expelled but is engaging in an argument between teachers within or between schools. Furthermore, Vinzent argues that it is the competition between teachers and schools that accounts for the growth in diversity of teachings in the second century.
—Bernard Brandon Scott