In 2008 the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins refocused its examination of Christian origins, moving from the region of Galilee toward the more northern environs of Syria, including the provincial capital of Antioch. This shift in emphasis achieved several goals for those who were able to contribute to the discussion from their areas of specialty.
The first of these achievements was a marked shift from concerns about sources that lie behind the gospels and the possibility of gospel origins themselves toward a consideration of the many contexts in which ancient liturgical and institutional practices developed. In certain respects this also marked a transition from the world of Palestinian Judaism to that of the diaspora synagogue, from a context in which early Christians were viewed as an emerging sect within a predominantly Jewish culture to a milieu where they were seen as one of many cultic faiths within the broader realm of the Roman empire.
Beyond this expansion, the turn toward Antioch and Syria provided opportunities to incorporate texts and traditions that circulated among early second‐century authors beyond the realm of apostolic times. This is particularly germane with respect to the situation at Antioch, where several writers from the church’s second generation contributed to the development of Christianity’s heritage—at least within a specific region of the eastern Mediterranean world.
In the current issue of the Forum, five of these papers are offered as a reflection of how this discussion evolved. Included here is John Wilson’s work on Caesarea Philippi (Banias) in northern Galilee. His detailed review of the politics, culture, and peoples of the region helps provide a more detailed understanding of how local traditions influenced the synoptic gospels and Acts, marking the Seminar ’s transition away from Galilee. Following is Brigitte Kahl’s introduction to the context that Syria provided for reshaping ancient Christian views. Her focus on Peter in Antioch, viewed primarily from the perspective of Paul, indicates the degree to which Jewish Christians experienced conflict in their adherence to Roman expectations. She examines questions of table ritual within the light of Jewish standards and Christian debate.
The setting of Antioch is also the topic of the next two papers, the first by me and the second by Nancy Pardee, each of whom attribute the production of the Didache to the Christian community there. In many ways these essays agree about the evolution of the text and its likely Syrian setting, though differences in development are supposed. Attempts to locate the work of the Didachist within the changing world of the late first century acknowledge that transitional moments between early apostolic views and subsequent editors served to redefine what belief meant for the rise of late Christian antiquity.
Related to this same context is Charles Bobertz’s essay on Ignatius of Antioch and his preservation of baptismal practices. Bobertz offers a liturgical view of how ancient Christian ritual was seen from the perspective of those who managed their application—the ancient bishop. He envisages the Ignatian view of baptism as a struggle between divine power and the forces of chaos, keying on the baptismal tradition preserved by the Gospel of Mark.
Finally, the issue closes with a contribution by Helmut Koester about how story and ritual shaped the self‐awareness of early Christian identity. Such elements are evident in the writings of Paul, as well as in the narratives of the gospels. Texts such as Acts and authors outside the canon also preserve the degree to which a broader understanding of ancient Christian mission dominated later Constantinian views about what it meant to be Christian.
These essays offer insight into the ancient Christian world of Galilee and Syria. Hopefully their contribution will help to reopen that world through fresh scholarly perspectives.
— Clayton N. Jefford
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Purchase Issue 3,1: Syria and Christian Origins (April 2014)
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