Saturday, June 02, 2007

Christian Origins without Acts and Eusebius

For some time I have been meaning to respond to remarks made by James Tabor over at his blog The Jesus Dynasty. In particular, I intend to contest his view about early Christianity.

Tabor challenges what is often often assumed about Christianity, namely: (1) That "the essential story line we read about in the New Testament book of Acts is an accurate version of the early years of the Jesus movement following the crucifixion". (2) And he says: "The second grand assumption about early Christianity that I think we should radically questioned is the portrait of its clean break with Judaism and its subsequent harmonious (despite a few evil heretics) and unbroken advance into the second and third centuries." Instead, he advocates we try to reconstruct Christianity by using "Nag Hamaddi texts found in Egypt in 1945, the newly edited and translated Pseudo-Clementine literature, the Didache, and various Syriac and Arabic sources".

At another place Tabor says: "Acts and Eusebius are not 'the story,' as I have recently written, then we have a lot of hard work before us. The good news is that much survives and I can not think of any field of historical investigation that is more exciting than Christian Origins at the beginning of this 3rd. millennium. If I may misquote/misapply the prophet Hosea: After two days he cause us to live, and on the third day he will raise us up. What an amazing time in which to live."

Here's my response:

1. If Acts and Eusebius are historically defunct and not the "real" story, then it is not so much a matter of getting on with the "hard work before us", rather, we should take up a new hobby besides Christian origins (go fishing I guess or watch that prosaic sport called "the Scottish Premier League"). Without the testimony of Eusebius and Luke we have no history of Christian Origins; however biased these reporters are, they constitute our primary and most valuable witnesses to the beginnings of Christiantiy. Without them, plotting the macro-picture of Christian Origins is done with, it is "game over"!

2. Tabor beleives that the Christian bias of these document eliminates them as reliable sources. But the fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as uninterpreted history, whether that is Luke or Thomas or whether it is Eusebius or the Ps-Clementines. What is more, Luke and Eusebius are purporting to give a narrative account of history, something that was not the intention of the NH or the other Christian writings that Tabor alludes to. We should then be more predisposed to trust Eusebius and Luke in their account (or at least in places where we have no evidence to prove the contrary).

3. I for one doubt whether Luke (and Eusebius) are presenting a purely romanticized and fictitious account of Christian origins. Yes, I can give a polite nod to Luke's propensity to down-play conflicts and his Pauline sympathies (but see Martin Hengel before you call Luke a pure Paulinist, since Hengel thinks that Luke is a naughty disciple of Paul). Yet I have a hard time thinking of Luke as a complete revisionist and Acts as as being entirely biased towards ecclesiastical uniformity. George Caird wrote: "In all this Luke is undoubtedly preserving the authentic quality of primitive Christianity. If he had been disposed to read back into the age he was describing the characteristics of the age in which he wrote, we should presumably have had from him a story of a mission planned and directed from Jerusalem by the Twelve. But of such ecclesiastical theory there is not a trace in his narrative" (Caird, Apostolic Age, p. 66; cf. Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul, p. 55). Thus, when Tabor says: "book of Acts is probably the most misleading document in the New Testament canon", I think have due cause to disbelieve him.

4. Is the Nag Hammadi and these unnamed Syriac/Arabic sources (whatever they are: Diatessaron or Epistula Apostolorum) any less biased or ideological than Luke and Eusebius? Of course not! Why are they kosher sources and Luke-Eusebius are not? Tabor might say that we can peel away the biases and ideology and see what really happened. And why not so for Acts and Eusbius too? In fact, his preferentiality treatment of the NH and other "lost" sources shows the prejudical nature of Tabor's inquiry.

5. At last year's SBL conference, I heard Francois Bovon (not exactly a card carrying evangelical) decry certain approaches to Christian Origins (i.e. the Christian Origins Seminar) for moving the periphery of early Christianity to the centre, i.e. Q, Thomas, and the NH. These writings are voices from the margin, and while it is indeed necessary to integrate them into the story of early Christianity, they are cameos or extras in the larger saga.

I am not necessarily subscribing to some "big bang" theory of Christian Origins where there was a period of pristine purity and social harmony until Simon Magus, Marcion, and Hillary Clinton came on the scene (some of my American friends inform me that it is a well established historical fact that Hillary Clinton is the Jezebel of Rev. 2.20 reincarnated). I concur that there was no clean and final split between Christianity and Judaism in the first two centuries. Also, there was a genuine complexity and diversity in the early church. However, some forms of Christianity though diverse were not mutually exclusive, some groups were perhaps competitive but necessarily hostile to each other, some groups with divergent views could quite happily cooperate in a common cause. Figures like Paul, John Mark, John the Elder, Peter, and Barnabas moved across the Mediterreanean and interacted with various Christian groups and had amicable relations with them. I do not think that Christians who read the Fourth Gospel would have been puzzled or offended by what Paul wrote. While Walter Bauer (for second century Christianity) and Dom Crossan and Jimmy Dunn (for first century Christianity) have given us a picture of a highly diverse and fluid movement, many of their contentions and conclusions have been rejected and refuted. Without reading the unity of the later orthodox church into the first century, I think it wise to remember that in the first century Christians did have some sense of being a worldwide movement (if you get a chance read Paul Trebilco's inaugural professorial lecture on this subject - rivetting stuff). I think that early Christianity, despite the complexity of the movement, was a relatively small and homogenous entity, and exhibited many more characteristics of unity and accordandance than is often recognized.


Michael Pahl said...

Thanks for this Mike, and your previous post on "The Pastoral Significance of Christian Origins." I find that a lot of people (both "liberals" and "conservatives") think the only two Christian origins options are absolute uniformity or radical diversity. But both of those options are very difficult to sustain in light of the literary remains of first century Christianity, and they're not the only two options available.

metalepsis said...

Thanks Mike, I really think your spot on. You even spurred me into posting about the whole thing on my blog.


Geoff Hudson said...

Opposite to Tabor, Acts might well be called “From Rome to Jerusalem: The Story of James’s Failed Mission".

Acts is a book of reversals of an original history written during the reign of Nero, I suspect by none other than James the travelling prophet himself (Prophets did travel according to the Didache). A classic reversal is the apparent final journey by ship to Rome around 60 CE - a journey which apparently came to grief in north westerly winds would you believe (just what a ship going to Rome would sail very well in). It is obvious that the ship was not attempting to sail to Rome but the other way to Caesarea. There was no shipwreck from which people miraculously escaped - the ship merely wintered (sheltered from the prevailing north west winds), probably in the harbour of Paphos. It was a ship taking grain from Alexandria in Egypt to Palestine for the relief of a famine. For the real history, I suggest that the person on board was James, and that he was subsequently killed in Jerusalem by the high priest Ananus in 62.

Paul is a fictitious character created to promote the "Story of Paul's Triumph" (to use Tabor's words). I see his activities in Acts as substituted (with changes) for those of the leader of the original Christians (anointed ones?), namely James, the real traveller. I believe that the epistles in Paul's name are edited versions of what once were prophetic type documents of the Spirit written by James. Conveniently Paul disappears in Rome at the same time as James is killed in Jerusalem. As for James being the head of the Jerusalem church, I doubt that. The 'church' of Acts 1,2 was more than likely in Rome where there were indeed large brick-built tenement houses (similar to those preserved in old Ostia) with up to five stories which could have accommodated 'Jews from every nation under heaven' (Acts 2.5) in something like a ghetto. They 'went upstairs' (Acts 1.13) in the house in which they were staying - these folk were away from their usual homes. They were refugees fleeing persecution. The house could hold a group numbering about 120 (Acts 1.15). 'The whole house' of Acts 2.2 suggests a large house.

I further suggest that in Rome, James was chosen to replace Judas who had been executed in Judea. Judas had 'served as' their leader (Acts 1.16), not 'as guide for those who had arrested Jesus'.

Didn't one Judas have two sons by the names of James and Simon, apparently both executed, but I don't swallow that either. Did these two always travel together. Were they transmogrified into Paul and Peter?

Isn't it Didymus Judas Thomas? And aren't Didymus and Thomas essentially adjectives meaning twin. Thus we have Judas the twin. Who would then have been Judas's twin? My bet is Matthias the father of Josephus. If you recall, Matthias and Judas were involved together in the interpolated asynchronous account of the pulling down of the so-called 'eagle' from over the gate of the 'temple'. A twin begets twins - the sons of Zeus in Acts were none other than James and Simon.