Different Christianities

The identification of the various 'belief-pictures' discernible in the New Testament writings, each author, each book having its own 'world' of ideas and communication, has dominated recent scholarship. It has also revolutionized many intuitive and long-held assumptions about Christianity. For instance: to begin with it was pure, clear and unified ('one faith, one church, one Lord'), and only later did human weakness (and diabolical manoeuvre) produce diversity and error. Or, to be a little more sophisticated, early Christianity was in agreement on certain fundamentals—about basic facts of Jesus' career, like his death and resurrection; about his status in God's purpose as universal saving agent; about certain moral priorities such as the centrality of love, the renunciation of family and property ties, monogamous marriage and no divorce. There might well be differences of emphasis and of custom, but they concerned only peripheral matters (perhaps the details of worship or baptismal practice). The central message was clear and went back either to Jesus himself or to his immediate apostolic circle.

It appears that these optimistic pictures were full of oversimplification or even downright falsehood. Of course a good deal depends on how closely you examine the phenomena: viewed from the air, little local features merge into the environment. All the same, give historical enquiry its head (and given an inch it will always take a mile), and it seems that early Christianity was richly diverse, often at loggerheads, even over quite fundamental matters, and forever correcting predecessors and neighbours. It is not so much that old certainties (once again) dissolve as that the inevitable consequences of human vitality, especially in the early days of a new movement, simply must be recognized. Not only did the early Church not appoint archivists, it also did not possess recognized and smoothly running organs of authority. Treating the various New Testament books in their own individual right and going realistically behind the (in terms of origins) pseudo-unity of the canon, we see a plethora of ideas and practices, all expressing allegiance to Jesus in one way or another—and, where they were not deliberately controverting other views, frequently oblivious, surely, to what was being believed or done in other Christian circles (Dunn 1977).

Nowhere has this diversity become clearer than in relation to the Gospels. Of course it has always been noted that they differed in vocabulary and content and it has been recognized that John was more 'theological' than the others. But the overwhelming tendency has been to seek to harmonize them, easing or explaining discrepancies, on the assumption that they must all contribute to a single consistent and historically accurate picture. Or else it is as if the four evangelists all dipped into a pool of information about Jesus and each, to an extent at least, fished out different material.

But now, whether they are viewed theologically or literarily, it is evident that such an approach does scant justice to the realities of the evangelists'

achievement. While, in a literary way, the first three at least are, in some way which is still not fully elucidated, closely related, having much in common, it now seems that this similarity of wording and content can be a decoy: it has for too long blinded us to the distinctive vision of each book. But once we notice the different overall framework within which each is set and the deliberate alterations made by successors to predecessors, then we begin to see how rich was the range of reaction to the figure of Jesus (Sanders and Davies 1989). We see too how pervasive was the thought-dimension in early Christianity. It will not do to say that the Gospels give us the facts and the epistles the doctrine which is to be derived from them. Rather, we have in all cases, Gospels and epistles alike, though in quite different modes, history interpreted and events theologized—with, again in all cases, the enmeshed contribution of the thought, personality and setting of the particular writer.

This perception has led to some startling reversals in the fortunes of New Testament books. For example, over the greater part of Christian history the Gospel of Mark was neglected: it was briefer than Matthew which shared much of the same material and it was less useful for teaching, and, though it might contain memories from Peter, it did not bear an apostle's name. In the nineteenth century it stepped forward, seeming early, simple, and usefully biographical. Now, however, while the fact that it is the earliest of the Gospels is generally agreed, its supposed simplicity has gone to the winds. Instead it is widely interpreted as a work of great subtlety and mystery, focusing with astonishing candour on that prime scandal, Jesus' death, and, while drawing attention to it constantly, doing nothing to justify easy or comforting ideas about its meaning (Hooker 1983). This insistence on Jesus' death as the key to his significance had already been apparent in Paul (see 1 Cor. 1:23; 11:236), but along with his resurrection—which Mark, in his refusal, it seems, of alleviation, scarcely deals with at all (16:1-8) (9-20 are a later addition).

The Gospel of Matthew, reproducing most of Mark, nevertheless rewrote it, often with hardly perceptible changes—yet in the interests of a contrasting way of belief. Mystery largely disappears, to be replaced by impressive clarity and authoritative argument from accepted (Old Testament) Scripture: see, for example, the opening chapters telling of Jesus' origins and birth and the explicit details of his resurrection (Houlden 1987). Jesus gains in unmistakeable charismatic power, though his messianic reality is, for the time being, veiled by 'lowliness'; and soon public manifestation will supervene (Matt. 11:2830; 28:16-20). And ample guidance is given for Christian life, in Jesus' long discourses (chapters 5-7; 10; 13; 18; 24-5). All in all, we are in a more reassuring and dependable Christian 'world'. So Matthew respected ('canonized') Mark enough to use him extensively but not enough to refrain from altering his sense (Stanton 1992).

Luke—Acts is generally seen as most intelligible if taken as a single work, or at any rate two related products of a single mind and a single set of needs and interests. Acts, so long treated as more or less plain history, has, in most quarters, come to be seen in the dominant theological perspective: even here identifiable pressures and assumptions have dictated not only the selection of material but also its detailed presentation. Thus, this writer sees Jesus in the setting of a dual relationship with Judaism: it both formed him and, in its leadership, rejected him. So he grows out of it, including its great symbolic institutions, temple and Scripture (chapters 1-2; 4:16-30), and yet is its lord, inaugurating a new, universal scope for God's saving purpose. The historical sweep (going back to Adam, Luke 3:38) and the geographical sweep, reaching right on from Jerusalem, via Syria, Asia Minor and Greece, to Rome itself (Acts 1-28), colour this writer's religious outlook to a greater degree than that of Mark (especially) or Matthew; as also do social concerns—to provide a framework in which Jewish and non-Jewish Christians (Acts 10; 15), rich and poor Christians (Luke 4:16-30) can interrelate harmoniously and above all sit at table (Acts 2:42) with one another (a crucial symbolic requirement in Luke's understanding of Jesus' legacy (cf. Luke 24:13-35) (Talbert 1990).

More insistently than the others, and with great economy of vocabulary, the Gospel of John sees Jesus against a cosmic background (1:1-14). His human origins are eclipsed by his existence from 'the beginning' with the Father and his eternal roots in him. Even his time here 'below' does nothing to obscure that 'true' level of his life. Though certainly he dies a genuine death at his human enemies' hands, that death has a steady significance which is described, daringly, as 'glorious'—it reveals the true splendour of God himself (13:31). So such a saviour draws his followers into a tight community around himself, guaranteed a kind of immunity at the point of ultimacy (chapters 13-17). What matters here is above all the bonding which Jesus creates between his followers, with 'love one another' as their sole instruction for life—in one sense obscure, in another all the more compelling for standing alone (Ashton 1991).

It will be apparent that allowing each writer to be seen in his own right (and we have concentrated only on the evangelists—the same could be done for the rest) lends a certain clarity: each voice makes itself heard, with its own character and quality. It may, undeniably, share this or that feature with others, but listing such shared properties is a way of hearing no single voice at all. Moreover, it obscures the fact that a given whole is more than a collection of separable features. In this light, the powerful impulse to identify what was common to (most) early Christians is misleading, though it may be comforting for those who are alarmed by diversity.

The impulse to unify, to homogenize, became very strong from the second century onwards, and with varyingly (though on the whole increasingly) effective pressure from church authorities, often with political back-up. It meant reading the New Testament writers with assumptions of unified witness and ultimate harmony, and in the light of agreed creeds and other doctrinal norms. In that way, as we now think, it meant doing injustice both to the documents themselves and to the specific intentions of their authors. But

(and here modern literary theory and, implicitly, ecclesiastical power join hands), authors have no monopoly on the interpretation of their work!

While modern study of the New Testament writings, whether of a historical or literary kind, has focused attention on the distinctiveness of each writer, that does not wholly silence the question about common ground and about a possible centre of gravity in the New Testament as a whole. After all, this collection of early Christian writings has lived happily together between a single pair of covers for many centuries, and it would be absurd to think that phenomenon to be unintelligible or purely misguided! Further, surely it is partly because this set of works is both so small and so important, and has therefore received such minute examination, that the individuality of the various writings has come to be highlighted.

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