Outline

I. The first decision demanded of those seeking to engage and understand earliest Christianity as a religion concerns focus.

A. Two approaches to the subject dominate the field but miss the specific subject with which we are concerned.

1. A historical approach analyzes the ancient evidence to reconstruct specific events in their chronological sequence and in their causal relations.

2. A theological approach analyzes the ancient evidence to determine the nature and the logical relations between explicit teachings having to do with belief or morals.

B. A religious analysis has its own distinctive character.

1. It concentrates less on unique public events (as history does) and more on the relation between individual experience and constant social patterns.

2. It concentrates less on the explicit and reflective language of theology and ethics and more on the implicit and direct discourse of religious performance.

C. Religious phenomena are connected but not to be identified with history and theology.

1. Historical and cultural contexts are important for grasping the character of religious phenomena, and religious behavior can affect and undergo historical development.

2. Religious language of ritual and prayer is the first-order discourse that serves as the raw material of the second-order discourse of theology.

II. Once a definite focus is established, the second question concerns the sources for the study of earliest Christianity as a religion.

A. The study of ancient religion lacks some of the sources that are critical to the study of contemporary religion.

1. We have no oral records of religious performance or testimony and relatively few firsthand accounts of religious experience.

2. We lack the sort of firsthand eyewitness observation of religious behavior that has proven so fruitful for the understanding of present-day religions.

3. We lack the demographic data that would enable statistical analyses of group behavior.

4. We must gather evidence indirectly from sources that often are not concerned with religion as such. The sources available for analysis of the past include archaeological and literary materials.

B. Archaeological materials include architectural remains, inscriptions, paintings, statuary, and a variety of artifacts ranging from domestic wares to funerary inscriptions.

C. Literary compositions fall into various genres: laws, ritual and magical texts, travel narratives, biographies, histories, novels, and revelational treatises.

D. The proportion of literary and archaeological materials differs for the three religious traditions with which we are concerned.

1. For Greco-Roman religion, archaeological evidence is rich and important, whereas literary evidence is relatively sparse.

2. In Judaism, we have some archaeological evidence for the first three centuries of the common era that is extremely important, whereas literary evidence, although important, is often difficult to date.

3. In early Christianity, there is no archaeological evidence clearly identifiable as Christian before 180 C.E., while literary evidence must include both canonical (biblical) and non-canonical materials.

E. There are intractable limits to the sources and, therefore, to the kinds of claims that can be made about these ancient religious traditions.

1. The sources are partial in the sense that much of what was done was never written and, if written, not preserved.

2. The sources are also partial in the sense that they represent the perspectives of those who were well off, literate, and enthusiastic.

III. Given the uncertain state of the sources, the methods used to deal with them is particularly important if we are to learn as much as we can.

A. A broadly phenomenological approach is one that sees a subject from as many angles as possible, seeks the interrelationship of things rather than their causes, and is fundamentally noninvasive with respect to the sources.

B. The coincidence of three interrelated and intercommunicating religious traditions in the Mediterranean world means that comparison can be used in three ways: to amplify partial information, to identify common patterns, and to sharpen specific differences.

C. A phenomenological approach can also make use of social scientific studies that enable the information from antiquity to be amplified by means of even wider cross-cultural analysis.

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