Christianity in the Making

Christianity is without doubt the most significant and longest-lasting influence to have shaped the character and culture of Europe (and so also of over the last two millennia. To understand Christianity better, its own character and the core elements which made its beliefs and values so influential, remains therefore an important task and a continuing challenge for historical inquiry. Within that larger enterprise, the beginnings of Christianity call for special consideration. Partly because the origins of such a major religious and social force are always of interest for the student of history. And partly because Christianity is itself named after the first-century CE figure, Jesus of Nazareth (Jesus Christ), and regards the earliest Christian writings (the New Testament) as definitive for these beliefs and values. To focus thus on Christianity's beginnings is not to claim that only the is or that apostolic was alone

It is simply to affirm the continuing relevance of formative factors in the determination of features of Christianity which have been integral to its lasting impact. And for Christianity itself the challenge of setting the texts which attest these beginnings within their historical context and of understanding them better can never be less than a challenge to Christianity's own self-understanding.

The task here envisaged was one more frequently tackled by earlier generations. Subsequent to the influential overviews of F. C. Baur (particularly 1845 and and the generally disregarded Ernest Renan we could mention, for example, Carl Das apostolische Zeitalter der christlichen Kirche

1. F. C. Baur, Paul: The Apostle of Jesus Christ (1845; ET 2 wis. London: Williams and Norgate, 1873, 1875); The Church History of the First Three Centuries (1854; ET 2 vols. London: Williams and Norgate, 1878-79).

2. E. Renan, origines in 5 volumes, beginning with his Vie de Jesus (1863), ET The History of the Origins of Christianity (London: Mathieson, n.d.).

(1886),3 Alfred Loisy, La Naissance du Christianis me (1933) and Les Origines du Nouveau Testament (1936),4 and Maurice Goguel's three-volume Jesus et les Origines du Christianisme (1932, 1946, 1941).5 From America came the slighter A. C. McGiffert, A History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age (1897).6 But the most substantive treatments,7 and nearest models for the current project, are Eduard Meyer's three-volume Ursprung und Anfdnge des Christentums (1921-23)8 and particularly Johannes Weiss's Das Urchristentum (regrettably incomplete when he died in These were marked, the last most impressively, by the attempt to draw together the fruits of historical, literary and theological investigations which were so lively at that time. English-speaking scholars have not generally attempted such ambitious overviews or syntheses,10 and throughout the twentieth century were content to focus on specific issues or to contribute at the level of introductory or semi-popular The one real exception is the recently undertaken multi-volume treatment by N. T. Wright — Christian Origins and the Question of God (so far two volumes, 1992, 1996).12 Substantial though these volumes are, and much as I agree with major features of the undertaking, however, I have serious reservations about the central hypothesis which so far forms the spine of the work. To have Wright, now bishop of Durham, as a dialogue partner is one of the pleasures of the present project.

The beginning of the third millennium, as from the birth of Je

3. ET 2 vols. The Apostolic Age of the Christian Church (London: Williams and Norgate, 1907, 1912).

4. ET The Birth ofthe Christian Religion and The Origins ofthe New Testament in a single volume (New York: University Books, 1962).

5. La Vie de Jesus (Paris: Payot, 1932), ET The Life ofJesus (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1933); La Naissance du Christianisme (Paris: Payot, 1946), ET The Birth ofChristian-ity (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1953); L'Eglise primitive (Paris: Payot, 1947), ET The Primitive Church (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964).

6. Edinburgh: Clark, 1897.

7. Also worthy of mention are the initial volumes of larger-scale projects on church history by H. Lietzmann, A History ofthe Church. Vol. 1: The Beginnings ofthe Christian Church (ET London: Lutterworth, 1937, revised 1949), and J. Lebreton and J. Zeiler, The History ofthe Primitive Church (ET 2 vols; London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1942, 1944).

9. ET Earliest Christianity: A History of the Period AD 30-150(1937; New York: Harper,

10. McGiffert gave only a brief treatment of Jesus and limited his study to the NT period.

11. The most recent volumes of note are C. Rowland, Christian Origins: An Account of the Setting and Character ofthe Most Important Messianic Sect of Judaism (London: SPCK, 1985), and P. Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 1999).

12. The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992); Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996).

sus, is an appropriate time to gather together the fruits of the last two centuries in a fresh statement and assessment of the status quaestionis after two thousand years. More important, however, are the recent developments in the field which call for a more or less complete reevaluation of previous assumptions and approaches. I mention here only the three most significant (a) In terms of methodology, the crisis for the hitherto self-assured historical-critical method of analysing sources and traditions, a crisis occasioned by post-modernism in its various forms, needs to be addressed at some (b) The interaction with social-scientific disciplines, particularly sociology, has shed a good deal of fresh light on the NT texts and Christianity's beginnings, which needs to be incorporated, but critically, into any such (c) The discovery of new texts, particularly the Dead Sea Scrolls and the codices from Nag Hammadi, has undermined the older wisdom which had previously determined scholarly views on the emergence of Christianity in its distinctiveness from its Jewish matrix and within the religious melting pot of the first- and second-century Mediterranean world. Although these texts were discovered more than fifty years ago, their impact continues to ripple through scholarship on earliest Christianity, and the current debates which they occasioned remain confused at many key points. Needless to say, I hope to contribute in some measure to these debates.

There are three great questions for students of Christianity's beginnings: (1) What was it about Jesus which explains both the impact he made on his disciples and why he was crucified? (2) How and why did it come about that the movement which took off from Jesus did not after his death remain within firstcentury Judaism and became unacceptable to emerging rabbinic Judaism? (3) Was the Christianity which emerged in the second century as a predominantly Gentile religion essentially the same as its first-century version or significantly different in character and kind?

These are not new questions. Already in his Paul book, Baur posed the second question in setting out his programme for a history of earliest Christianity, when he claimed that the idea (of Christianity) found in the bounds of the national Judaism the chief obstacle to its universal historical realization. How these bounds were broken through, how Christianity, instead of remaining a mere form of Judaism, although a progressive one, asserted itself as a separate, independent principle, broke loose from it, and took its stand as a new enfranchised form of religious thought and life, essentially differing from all the national peculiarities of Judaism is the ultimate, most important point of the primitive history of

Baur's formulation of the issue reflects the supreme self-confidence of nineteenth-century German scholarship and the triumphalism of a view of Christianity as the 'absolute' expression of 'the universal, the unconditioned, the essential'14 which grates intensely for a post-Holocaust sensibility. But, as we shall see further in volume 2, Baur set the agenda for attempts to clarify the history of primitive Christianity for the rest of the nineteenth century. And the issue of Christianity's emergence from within Judaism has reappeared in the second half of the twentieth century, posed all the more sharply by the Holocaust, as one of the absolutely crucial subjects for any analysis of the formative period of both Christianity and Judaism.

The turn of the twentieth century brought the third great issue to the fore, summed up in the phrase, 'the Hellenization of (the earliest form of) Christian-ity'.16 This was the principal concern of the history-of-religions school — to locate Christianity as it emerged into the Graeco-Roman world within the context of other of the day and to trace the influences from the wider context on that emerging Christianity. The issue is nicely focused on the disparity between the message of Jesus in the Gospels and the gospel of Paul in his letters, where the assumption or conclusion (?) was that several key features of the latter had to be attributed to the influence of mystery cults and early Gnostic ideas.17 The consequences for our appreciation of Christianity's beginnings are clearly signalled in William Wrede's famous description of Paul as 'the second founder of Christianity', who has 'exercised beyond all doubt the stronger — not the better — influence' than the first founder, Jesus.18

Here again are questions best left till volume 2. But one of the key insights of the twentieth century has been the recognition that the historical developments could not be neatly compartmentalized, as though one could simply distinguish Jesus and Jewish Christianity from Paul and Hellenistic/Gentile Christianity, from the Apostolic Fathers and the emerging Great Church, and from Jewish-

15. See my The Partings of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity (London: SCM, 1991) 1-17. The importance of the plural (Partings) has usually been recognized in reactions to this volume; but it is equally important to recognize the importance of the final phrase (for the Character of Christianity), intended to draw Christianity's attention to this central feature of its beginnings. The significance for historic (rabbinic) Judaism needs also to be part of the agenda for the ongoing dialogue between Jews and Christians.

16. In his famous lectures, A. Harnack, What Is Christianity? {1899-1900; ET Williams and Norgate, defined 'the greatest fact in the history of the Church in the second century' as 'the influx of Hellenism, of the Greek spirit, and the union of the Gospel with it' (203, his italics).

18. W. Wrede, Paul (1904; ET Boston: Beacon, 1908) 180.

Christian and Gnostic heretical forms of Christianity. The breakthrough was made by Walter Bauer's Rechtglaubigkeit und Ketzerei im altesten Christentum (1934, which argued that the earliest forms of Christianity in several major Mediterranean centres may have been what subsequent 'orthodoxy' came to regard as 'heresy'. In other words, the earliest forms of Christianity were much more of a 'mixed bag' than had previously been thought. Was there ever a 'pure' form of Christianity?! Bauer's own thesis is again subject matter for a subsequent volume. But the issues he raised could not be confined to the second century. In one of the most important twentieth-century contributions to the reconstruction of Christianity's beginnings, James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester followed up Bauer's insight in the light of the Nag Hammadi texts and concluded that the same verdict had to be delivered on first-century Christianity as well.20 Was there ever a single form of Christianity? Is the Christianity of the New Testament simply the deposit of that form of Christianity which endured and/or overcame its (Christian!) rivals?21

Both these large-scale issues — the emergence of Christianity from within Judaism, and into the wider Hellenistic world — have inevitably impacted back on the first, on the attempt to understand the mission and message of Jesus himself and its determinative influence. On the one hand, the (re)assertion that Jesus was a Jew has become one of the commonplaces of contemporary NT scholarship. But the more firmly Jesus is located within the Judaism of his day, the more pressing become the questions Why then was he crucified? and How then the movement which sprang from his mission cease to be part of Judaism (to be Jewish!) so quickly? On the other hand, the likelihood is frequently canvassed today that the pluralism detected by Bauer was a feature of Christianity from the first, that is of the very first hearings of Jesus' own preaching. Or even that the influence of Hellenism which Harnack described as a feature of the second century is already to be traced in Jesus' own message. These last are among the most important issues to be discussed in the following pages (vol. 1). But the point here is that the questions which motivate historical inquiry into Christianity's beginnings can no longer be neatly apportioned to separate volumes. A history of earliest Christianity can no longer treat the mission and message of Jesus simply as prolegomenon, nor confine itself to the period and documents of the NT. Unless

19. ET Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971).

20. J. M. Robinson and H. Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971).

21. In my Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (London: SCM, I followed up Robinson and Koester to the extent of drawing attention to the diversity of earliest Christianity, that is, the diversity within the New Testament. But I did not really address the issue of a diversity of which the NT itself was only part.

the major transitions, from Jesus to Paul, from the NT to the early Fathers (and 'heretics'!) are also appreciated, neither the significance of Jesus nor that of Paul, neither the Christianity of the NT writings nor that of the early Fathers can be adequately comprehended or fully grasped.

In other words, what is envisaged in Christianity in the Making is the attempt in three volumes to give an integrated description and analysis, both historical and theological, both social and literary, of the first or so years of Christianity (27-150 CE). Volume 1 will, inevitably, focus on Jesus. Part One will examine what has become universally known as 'the Quest of the Historical Jesus', focusing on the crucial insights gleaned in the course of the two-hundred-year-old quest and asking whether or in what degree they are still valid. It will argue that the Gospel traditions provide a clear portrayal of the remembered Jesus since they still display with sufficient clarity for present purposes the impact which Jesus made on his first followers. Part Two will evaluate the sources available to us and describe the historical context of Jesus' mission as concisely as feasible, to the current debate regarding these sources and drawing on the most recent archaeological and sociological studies. The most distinctive feature of the present study will be the attempt to freshly assess the importance of the oral tradition of Jesus' mission and the suggestion that the Synoptic Gospels bear testimony to a pattern and technique of oral transmission which has ensured a greater stability and continuity in the Jesus tradition than has thus far been generally appreciated. Parts Three to Five will then attempt to gain an overview of Jesus' mission (as remembered by his first followers), dealing in succession with its main themes, some much controverted, others surprisingly not so; also, inevitably, the questions of what Jesus' hearers thought of him, what he thought of himself, and why he was crucified. The volume will conclude with a discussion of how and why the belief that Jesus had been resurrected arose and what were the claims it embodied.

Volume 2 will begin with a section methodologically equivalent to Parts One and Two of volume 1 — on the quest for the historical 'primitive community' and the value of the sources available, including not just the Acts of the Apostles, but also what can be deduced from the Gospels and the Epistles. In trying to sketch out the earliest history and the emergence of 'the Hellenists' (Acts 6.1), it is important to appreciate the character of the early Nazarene sect within the 'sectarianism' of late Second Temple Judaism. The earliest expansion of the new movement, its causes and course, require careful detective work and sifting of the evidence, not least in regard to the expansion which the Acts does not record. A particular concern at this point will have to be an evaluation of the increasingly vociferous claims that there were diverse and alternative forms of Christianity as early as those attested in the canonical NT.

Given the place of Acts and the Pauline letters within the NT, the dominant figure through the latter half of this period is bound to be Paul. But Paul's life and work need to be built into an integrated picture, and Paul needs to be fitted into the much larger picture of a Nazarene sect 'beginning from Jerusalem'. The emergence of the distinctives which were to mark out Christianity and result in its becoming a separate religion was a much more complex process, involving many others than Paul, but their contributions are much more difficult to bring to light and to tease out. Nevertheless, the (probably) quite close conjunction of Paul's death and the beginning of the first Jewish revolt (66 CE) point to 70 CE, when, properly speaking, Second Temple Judaism came to an end with the destruction of the Temple, as the natural terminus ad quern for the second volume.

At the time of writing this Introduction, the form of volume 3 is not yet settled. The intention, however, is to cover what can roughly be classified as the second and third generations of Christianity (70-150). This is the period in which most of the NT texts were written, but the task of correlating them with other data from the same period, particularly Jewish and texts and epigraphical data, and of producing a coherent overall picture is extremely daunting. Moreover, 150 takes us into the period when the challenge of Bauer's thesis is at its sharpest and the confrontations between nascent Christianity/ies and its/their chief competitors are already clear. 150 was also Weiss's cut-off date, and though fairly arbitrary it should be sufficient to ensure that the gap between the NT and 'post-apostolic' Christianity has been fully bridged and that the trends and tendencies which formed Christianity's enduring character are sufficiently clear.

And so to Jesus.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Study Aid

Study Aid

This Book Is One Of The Most Valuable Resources In The World When It Comes To Getting A Scholarship And Financial Support For Your Studies.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment