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Burton L. Mack
Who Wrote the New Testament?
(San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995)
  • Contents
  • Prologue
  • Part 1
  • Part 2
  • Part 3
  • Epilogue

  • Transciber's comments

  • Copyright © 1995 by HarperCollins -- All rights reserved.
    Only limited, "fair use" excerpts reproduced here.


    [ i ]


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    1   Prologue: The Mystique of Sacred Scripture

    PART 1: Jesus and the Christ

    19   1. Clashing Cultures

    43   2. Teachings from the Jesus Movements
    (Q, Pronouncement Stories, Gospel of Thomas,
    Miracle Stories, the Pillars in Jerusalem)

    75   3. Fragments from the Christ Cult
    (Christ Myth, Ritual Meal, Christ Hymn)

    PART 2: Christ and the Hinge of History

    99   4. Paul and His Gospel
    (1 and 2 Thessalonians, Galatians)

    123   5. Paul's Letters to Greeks and Romans
    (1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philemon, Philippians)

    147   6. Gospels of Jesus the Christ
    (Mark, Matthew, Luke)

    175   7. Visions of the Cosmic Lord
    (John, Colossians, Ephesians, Hebrews, Revelation)

    199   8. Letters from the Apostles
    (Pastoral Epistles, Catholic Epistles, James,
    Johannine Letters)

    PART 3: History and the Christian Myth

    225   9. Inventing Apostolic Traditions
    (Acts, Didache, 1 Clement, Ignatius)

    251   10. Claiming Israel's Epic
    (Marcion, Valentinus, Justin Martyr)

    275   11. Creating the Christian Bible
    (Canons, Mishnah, Eusebius, Jerome)

    293   Epilogue: The Fascination of the Bible

    311   Appendix A: Early Christian Literature

    312   Appendix B: The Contents of Q

    314   Appendix C: The Pronouncement Stories in Mark

    317   Works Cited

    321   Index


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    Copyright © 1995 by HarperCollins -- All rights reserved.
    Only limited, "fair use" excerpts reproduced here.


    [ 1 ]


    THE  MYSTIQUE  OF        

    Fascination with sacred scriptures seldom surfaces for observation or remark. Their mystique is subtle, something that most persons in a culture would hardly recognize even if mentioned. I have been pondering that mystique, asking why the Bible has such a curious hold on our minds and imaginations. I have not been thinking about the obviously embarrassing public displays of foolish obsessions with the Bible in our time, listening for the hoofbeats of John's four horsemen of the apocalypse, for instance, or citing Paul to prove that gays are sinners in the eyes of God. Madness of that sort can pop up in times of social and cultural crisis no matter what the issue or the mythic authorities might be. I am thinking instead about all of the seemingly innocent ways in which the Bible is taken for granted as a special book, and about all of the ways in which it works its magic in our culture without ever being acknowledged, consulted, or read.

    The range of procedures for consulting the Bible is astounding. Students tell me that their grandmothers used to seek "a word for the day" by letting their Bibles flop open to a "verse for the day." Ministers, priests, rabbis, preachers, and teachers by the thousands pore over these texts in quest of some lesson or message fit for their classes or congregations. Groups are now forming outside the formal boundaries of institutional religion to study the Bible in the hope of discovering some fundamental truth felt to have been lost in our recent past. Think of the intellectual labor invested in the academic study of the Bible, the production of scholarly studies and guides for interpreting the Bible, and the huge flow of literature that constantly pours forth from church houses and commercial publishers of books on the Bible. One might well wonder at all this activity swirling around a single book.

    This constant consultation of the Bible is partially explained by the important role assigned to the Bible in our religious institutions. Readings from the Bible are essential to liturgies, lessons from the Bible are basic for teachings and doctrines, and references to the Bible are felt to be necessary in the construction of theologies by those charged with the intellectual life of religious traditions. The remarkable thing


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    Christian Bible that has influenced our culture. We shall see that the New Testament was linked to the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament in just a certain way, and that it is this link which gives the Christian Bible its peculiar logic and force. This linkage is what we eventually need to understand in order to have some public discussion about the Bible's continuing attraction in our own time. But in order to understand that link and its logic, we need to see why the New Testament writings were written in the first place and how they eventually became the New Testament of the Christian church.

    As I toyed with the idea of writing such a book about the New Testament, I found myself confronted with a sort of catch-22. The catch is that for most people the New Testament is taken as proof for the conventional picture of Christian origins, and the conventional picture is taken as proof for the way in which the New Testament was written. The conventional picture comes to focus on a very small set of persons and events as storied in the gospels. It is the story of Jesus' appearance in the world as the son of God. A divine aura surrounds this special time that sets it apart from all the rest of human history. Most people suspend their disbelief and let the story stand as the miraculous moment that started the Christian religion. All that followed, including the transformation of the disciples into apostles, the birthday of the first church in Jerusalem, the conversion of Paul, and the writing of the New Testament gospels and letters by the apostles, is thought to be a response to those first incomparable events. Thus the unfolding history is imagined on the model of dominoes falling in place when triggered by an original impulse. This creates a circular, interlocking pattern of authentication in which the New Testament is both the result of and the documentation for the conventional view of Christian beginnings.

    For this reason the New Testament is commonly viewed and treated as a charter document that came into being much like the Constitution of the United States. According to this view, the authors of the New Testament were all present at the historic beginnings of the new religion and collectively wrote their gospels and letters for the purpose of founding the Christian church that Jesus came to inaugurate. Unfortunately for this view, that is not the way it happened. Scholars locate the various writings of the New Testament at different times and places over a period of one hundred years, from the letters of Paul in the 50s of the first century, through the writing of the gospels of Mark and Matthew in the 70s and 80s, the gospels of John and Luke around the turn of the second century, and on to the acts, letters, and other writings during the first half of the second century, some as late as 140 to 150 C.E. (appendix A). This fact alone introduces another history of Christian beginnings that is not acknowledged by or reflected in the writings of the New Testament.

    To make matters worse for the conventional view, these writings stem from different groups with their own histories, views, attitudes, and mix of peoples. In some cases it is possible to trace the connections between two different writings. An example would be the way in which the gospel attributed to Matthew was dependent


    upon the gospel attributed to Mark. But even in cases such as these a careful reading of two related writings always produces a long list of their differences. No two writings agree upon what we might have thought were fundamental convictions shared by all early Christians. Each writing has a different view of Jesus, for instance, a particular attitude toward Judaism, its own conception of the kingdom of God, a peculiar notion of salvation, and so on. This means that the impression created by the New Testament of a singular collection of apostolic documents, all of which bear "witness" to a single set of inaugural events, is misleading.

    We now know that there were many different responses to the teachings of Jesus. Groups formed around them, but then went different ways depending upon their mix of peoples, social histories, and discussions about the teachings of Jesus and how they were to be interpreted and applied. Some were of the type we call Jesus movements. Others became congregations of the Christ whose death was imagined as a martyrdom to justify a mixture of Jews and gentiles as equally acceptable in a new configuration of the people of God (or "Israel"). Still others developed into enclaves for the cultivation of spiritual enlightenment or the knowledge (gnosis) Jesus had taught. Each of these branches of the Jesus movements, including many permutations of each type, imagined Jesus differently. They did so in order to account for what they had become as patterns of practice, thinking, and congregating settled into place. And they all competed with one another in their claims to be the true followers of Jesus. Many of these groups had their own gospels (R. Cameron 1982), and some produced rather large libraries that are still available to us from the second, third, and fourth centuries. As for the New Testament, it turns out to be a very small selection of texts from a large body of literature produced by various communities during the first one hundred years. These New Testament texts were collected in the interest of a particular form of Christian congregation that emerged only by degrees through the second to fourth centuries. Toward the end of the book I will begin referring to this type of Christianity as "centrist," meaning thereby that it positioned itself against gnostic forms of Christianity on the one hand, and radical forms of Pauline and spiritist communities on the other. It was centrist Christianity that became the religion of empire under Constantine, collected together the texts we now know as the New Testament, and joined them to the Jewish scriptures to form the Christian Bible. When these writings were first written there was no centrist tradition, and none of them fully agreed with the others with respect to their views of Jesus, God, the state of the world, or the reason for the Jesus movements.

    It is also the case that, with the exception of seven letters by Paul and the Revelation to an otherwise unknown John, the writings selected for inclusion in the New Testament were not written by those whose names are attached to them. Many modern Christians find this fact difficult to comprehend, if not downright unnerving. The problem seems to be that, if so, someone must have been lying. A better way to understand this phenomenon is to realize (1) that most literature of the early Christian period was written anonymously, (2) that the concept of an apostolic age


    was a second-century creation, and (3) that the later attribution of this literature to names associated with apostles can be explained in ways that show it was not considered dishonest. One helpful observation is that anonymous authorship of writings intended for use in social institutions such as schools, temples, and royal bureaucracies was standard practice in the scribal traditions of the ancient Near East. Another is that, in the early period of collecting lore, interpreting teachings, and trying out new ideas fit for the novel groupings spawned by the Jesus movements, many minds, voices, and hands were in on the drafting of written materials. No one thought to take credit for writing down community property even though authorial creativity is everywhere in evidence. Even the earliest collections of teachings and stories about Jesus, such as the Sayings Gospel Q, the Gospel of Thomas, and the little sets of anecdotes and miracle stories from the pre-Markan tradition bear the marks of literacy and creativity, though none was signed by an author.

    As for the later attribution of anonymous literature to known figures of the past, that also was a standard practice during the Greco-Roman period. In the schools of rhetoric, for example, teachers had their students write speeches and letters appropriate for such figures to see if the student had fully understood the importance of a historical figure. It was what a recognized figure stood for that was deemed important, not his personal profile. Scholars agree, in any case, that for these and other reasons, most of the writings in the New Testament were either written anonymously and later assigned to a person of the past or written later as a pseudonym for some person thought to have been important for the earliest period. Striking examples of the latter are the two letters said to have been written by Peter, both of which are clearly second-century creations.

    Thus, over the course of the second and third centuries, centrist Christians were able to create the impression of a singular, monolinear history of the Christian church. They did so by carefully selecting, collecting, and arranging anonymous and pseudonymous writings, assigned to figures at the beginning of the Christian time. As they imagined it, this history was foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament, inaugurated by Jesus and his sacrifice for the sins of the world, established by the apostles in their missions, and confirmed by the bishops in their loyalty to the teachings of that illustrious tradition. And because all the New Testament writings were now regarded as written by apostles and their associates, the differences among their views of Christian beginnings were effectively erased. In the centrist Christian imagination, the four gospels merged into an amalgam of the one gospel story, and the letters of Paul and the other apostles were read as "witnesses" to these dramatic events that inaugurated the Christian time. This means that the impression modern readers have of the New Testament as a charter document for Christianity, a kind of constitution written in concert by a college or congress of apostles, is thoroughly understandable. That is exactly what the centrist Christians of the fourth century intended. The problem is that this charter was created for the fourth-century church by means of literary fictions. It is neither an


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    process of being reconsidered and realigned in light of the novel social vision they called the kingdom of God.

    As everyone knows, however, these early Christians did more than argue about power and purity or test the conventional codes of behavior by violating table etiquette. They also entertained some very extraordinary ideas, especially in regard to Jesus, his transformation into a divine cosmic being, and his status as lord of all history and creation. And the claims these Christians made about knowing the mind of God, his ways with the world, and the apocalyptic ending to all human history when the kingdom of God would finally be "revealed" were nothing short of fantastic. If we cannot say how these early Christians came to such ideas, and for what reasons, we shall not be able to escape the catch-22 even though we may catch sight of their many social formations. It would still be possible to think that the events imagined in their mythology had really overwhelmed them. That is the way the conventional myth of Christian origins paints the picture: first the miraculous and incomparable events surrounding the appearance of Jesus as the son of God, then the preaching of this gospel and the formation of the church. If we want to change that sequence we shall have to explain the emergence of these mythic ideas some other way. That other way will be to pay attention to mythmaking in the process of social experimentation.

    That early Christians engaged in mythmaking may be difficult for modern Christians to accept. The usual connotations of the term myth are almost entirely negative. And when it is used to describe the content of the New Testament gospels there is invariably a hue and cry. That is because, in distinction from most mythologies that begin with a "once upon a time," the Christian myth is set in historical time and place. It seems therefore to demand the belief that the events of the gospel story really happened. And that means that the story cannot be "myth." It may help some to note (1) that mythmaking is a normal and necessary social activity, (2) that early Christian mythmaking was due more to borrowing and rearranging myths taken for granted in the cultures of context than to firsthand speculation, and (3) that the myths they came up with made eminent sense, not only for their times and circumstances, but also for the social experiments in which they were invested. That, at least, will be my challenge. That is what I want to show by writing this book. But how do myths make sense? And what kind of sense does the Christian myth make?

    Every culture has a set of stories that account for the world in which a people find themselves. These stories usually tell of the creation of the world, the appearance of the first people, ancestral heroes and their achievements, and the glorious beginnings of society as a people experience it. Terrain, village patterns, shrines, temples, cities, and kingdoms are often set in place or planned at the beginning of time. Scholars understand these myths as the distillation of human-interest stories first told in the course of routine patterns of living together, then rehearsed for many generations. Telling stories about one another is what we do. It belongs to the


    life and work of maintaining human relations and constructing societies. Telling stories is how we do our catching up, checking one another out on views and attitudes, and gathering information to justify judgments we need to make about something we call character. It does not take long before there are too many stories to recall and retell. Even in a brief family history, sorting takes place naturally over time, and only the most vivid stories are ever rehearsed. Some, however, are told again and again. These become stories that several generations might share. As the size of a social unit expands, the number of shared stories shrinks. These stories invariably become dense icons, packed with features characteristic for the people as a whole. As the past generations fade from memory, these stories are allowed to slip into a "once upon a time" where a honing of ancestral symbols takes place.

    In cultures where there is interest, capacity, and circumstance to remember more than three or four generations, where writing is invented and records kept, it is customary to develop a "historical" imagination as a kind of linear basket to hold the stories of importance for the collective memory of a people. Now only the most compact and generalized icons collect "at the beginning," the point in the past beyond which the human imagination cannot reach. The others may be sprinkled here and there through the "history," but, sequence is not always important, and many of the stories in the basket may not be connected to one another in any particular way. Rhyme and reason may be superimposed, however, in the interest of borrowing some of the luster of the past for the present shape of the society. When that happens, we can begin to speak of an epic. Epic is a rehearsal of the past that puts the present in its light. Setting the present in the light of an illustrious past makes it honorable, legitimate, right, and reasonable. The present institution is then worth celebrating. Naturally, both the past and the present may be highly romanticized or idealized, for epic is myth in the genre of history. The stories of Gilgamesh in ancient Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations were epic. For the Greeks, Homer was epic. Pindar's poetry of illustrious family lines was epic on a small scale. The local histories of shrines, temples, and peoples in the eastern Mediterranean during the Hellenistic period were epic on a medium-sized scale. And the history of Israel, which, from the very beginning of the world aimed at the establishment of a temple-state in Jerusalem, was epic for the Jews.

    When the second temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the Jews had a problem on their hands. Not only their ancient history, contained in the five books of Moses, but an immense body of literature from the Hellenistic period documented their intellectual investment in the temple-state as the proper goal of human history from the foundation of the world. Christians also had a problem. They had no right to claim the history of Israel as their own. But early Jewish Christians had wanted to think of themselves as the people of God, heirs of the promises to Israel, or even the new Israel for a new day. It was natural to do so in order to feel right about the new Jesus movements. And so, before the destruction of the temple, early Jesus people and Christians had already started to point to this or that feature of the history of Israel in order to claim some link with the illustrious traditions of Israel. As we shall


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    Copyright © 1995 by HarperCollins -- All rights reserved.
    Only limited, "fair use" excerpts reproduced here.

    [ 17 ]

    PART 1          

    Jesus and the Christ          






    Cultures clashed in Greco-Roman times, and the Eastern Mediterranean filled to bursting with a heady and volatile mix of peoples, powers, and ideas. Confusing for most, exhilarating for some, the energies unleashed by these uncertain times peaked during the first century C.E. and resulted in extravagant social experimentation and imaginative intellectual projections. The reason for the outpouring of intellectual energy, and for the struggle to find new ways to group, was that the cultural traditions flowing into the mixing bowl were no longer supported by the social institutions that had produced and sustained them. People were on their own to manage as best they could with only the memory of provincial values to guide them in a helter-skelter cosmopolitan age. Most rose to the challenge, and the inventiveness of some proposals for dealing with multicultural forces and surviving the machinations of the blind goddess called Fate (tyche) was nothing short of genius. We need to understand both the malaise and the creativity of these times, for it was just at this juncture that Judaism and Christianity emerged. As we shall see, the attractiveness of early Christianity is best explained as one of the more creative and practical social experiments in response to the loss of cultural moorings that all peoples experienced during this time.

    Three model societies were in everyone's mind during the Greco-Roman age (second century B.C.E. to second century C.E.): the ancient Near Eastern temple-state, the Greek city-state (polis), and the Roman republic. Eventually, they all came tumbling down in the aftermath of Alexander the Great's campaigns. We are accustomed to thinking of Alexander as the enlightened ruler who introduced the peoples of the ancient Near East to the glories of Greek culture and so created the Hellenistic age, where we locate the foundation for Western civilization. We do not usually consider the negative effects of his campaigns which brought to an end the last of the illustrious empires of the ancient Near East, especially those of the Persians and the Egyptians, and tarnished the classical Greek ideal of the polis by using its model for imperialistic purposes. These effects must be in mind as we proceed. After


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    allowed for a savvy critique of the status quo. And it forced the question of whether it was possible for anyone to live with integrity in the Greco-Roman world with its confusions about laws and the fact of illegitimate uses of power.

    This question resulted in a purely personal, individualistic approach to the question of virtue. Philosophers and teachers in the schools of popular ethical philosophy, Stoics especially, but Cynics as well, gave up on the idea that building abstract models of perfect societies might change the world for the better. They instead turned all their attention to the plight of the lone individual. Personal virtue was all that mattered, they said. And anyone could be virtuous by living in accordance with (the laws of) nature. Virtue was, after all, the highest and noblest human pursuit. Why not accept the fact that the individual was all alone in the universe without the support of a social world that guaranteed well-being? Wasn't it possible for a person to know what needed to be known about the structure of the universe and do what needed to be done in order to live "according to nature" (physis) and so achieve honorable character? The world was filled with popular philosophers, teachers, books, and self-help guides for living with integrity even under the untoward circumstances of the Greco-Roman age.

    The Stoic recommendation was particularly popular. The idea was that a person could learn or discern what was "naturally" right and live "according to nature" if one only would. The goal was to be unaffected by the crowd, untouched by the accidents of life that otherwise would be felt as pain, and unmoved by the power that tyrants and others might have over you. The Stoics were fully aware that this would require a heroic effort, and might even get you in trouble with the powers that be. But therein lay the reward of a chance to manifest true nobility. And then a funny thing happened. The Stoics learned how to use the social model of the ideal king as an icon for personal meditation. The only true king was a sage, they said, and as for the mark of the sage, it was knowing and living in accordance with nature. If one did that, they said, one would truly be a citizen of the great world city. One would become a cosmopolitan, a sovereign example of virtue at its highest imaginable level of human achievement. This philosophy was a radically individualistic response to the breakdown of cultures in the Greco-Roman age, and it spread like wildfire. The Stoics had succeeded in reducing the entire system of cosmos, polis, and anthropos to the status of a psychological metaphor.

    For other thinkers, especially those with cultural roots in the eastern Mediterranean provinces, radical individualism was hardly an answer. Ancient Near Eastern cultures had developed a strong sense of the importance of belonging to a people. Theirs was a social anthropology that placed high value on family, kinship, genealogy, tradition, purity, social justice, cultic law, and religious piety. These values were very deeply ingrained in the collective unconscious, and they determined the way in which people thought about the world. In response to the troubled times, for these people, only a social vision would do. And it would not be enough to construct an ideal kingdom simply on the foundation of systematic thought and logic. It would


    have to honor the achievements of the past, reflect the promise of the past, account for the present malaise, and project an imaginable future for all the people who were now crowding into the picture. The ideal kingdom would have to offer a social alternative to the social confusion of the Greco-Roman age.

    This social approach to cultural critique led to passionate interest in the grand epic traditions that every people brought with them to the Greco-Roman mix. The Greeks had their combination of Homer, Hesiod, and age-old tales about the gods and heroes. The Syrians had their chronicles; the Samaritans their books from Moses; the Egyptians their dramatic cycles of Isis and Osiris; the Romans their records of Romulus and Remus; and the Jews their history from the foundation of the world. Every aristocratic family, local shrine, and city with any pretense at all also had its genealogy and history intact even though its power and glory were threatened or gone. What was left from the past was illustrious epic, but of course all epics were now tarnished. Some intellectuals thought, nonetheless, that the epics were still of value. Epics contained information that a study of the cosmos could not provide. Epics brought the gods into the story. Epics might go all the way back to the creation of the world where the connections were first made between the cosmic order and the origin of civilization. Epics were the reservoir of the wisdom of the past. They revealed the characteristics of a people, explained their attitudes toward neighboring peoples, recorded failures and achievements, and marked the moments when certain features of a social order were established. Epics were instructive. Epics accounted for a people as a people. They must hold the clues to what went wrong. They might provide some hints about how to set things right again. They could at least be used to mourn the loss of ancient glories and view the Romans with disdain.

    Two epics attracted the most attention, and competition between them was fierce. Homer had the edge because the dominant culture was Greek. But the story of Israel also created a great deal of interest even outside Jewish circles. That is because Jewish culture drew upon its epic tradition in order to undergird a set of ideas and values that, although threatened by the Greco-Roman age, were still found attractive. The concepts of a righteous god, a divine law, a creation designed to enhance both wonder and morality, a vision of society based on social justice, and rituals for the observance and celebration of sane, rational, family-centered life could all be gathered from their epic. It was a story of the people that stretched from the creation of the world to the construction of the temple-state in Jerusalem. It was a reasonable contrast to the stories of fickle gods and arrogant heroes with which the Greeks had to make do. And Moses, the author of the five books called torah (instruction), was clearly a match for Homer. Some said Moses was earlier than Homer, that he had lived somewhere near the very beginning of human history, and that whatever Homer knew, he must have learned from Moses. But the more important advantage was that the "law of Moses" was not just law, even though everyone had learned to translate torah with nomos, but real epic. Creation, the origin of the


    species, and culture bringers, along with violence, folly, the rainbow's promise, patriarchal legends, eternal covenants, and the destiny of a people all took shape before laws in the narrower sense ever entered the picture. It was something to think about. And many did.

    Scholars with social questions in mind became obsessed with the books of Moses as the second-temple history ran its course. Some retold the story at length in the interest of saying how grand the history of Israel had been and how respectable the Jewish people were (Josephus, Jubilees). Others highlighted aspects of the story that gave the present shape of society its epic constitution, leaving out the parts that did not fit (Sirach 44-50; Mack 1985). And others still read Moses and the prophets to lift up a forgotten ideal, use it to criticize the status quo, and say what had to happen in order to set things right (Qumran). In every case, the strategy was the same: revising the epic in light of present circumstances from a particular point of view to support a critical judgment about the present state of affairs. Historians of religion would say that these Jewish scholars followed a typical pattern of mythmaking.

    This pattern works in the following way. The current state of affairs is not living up to the promise of the past. The recent past comes under critique. The stories of the more distant past are rehearsed to make sure of the promise. The aim is to see the promise more clearly, more precisely, and test the reasons for having thought that it was true. This brings focus to bear upon a certain moment, epoch, or feature of the history that can serve as a key to its fundamental logic and promise. Reseen, and lifted from its ancient history as an ideal model, the figure can then be used as an image of what the people and their culture were, are in essence, or should be. The image can then be used as a contrast to the present situation in order to render a critique, provide a model for rebuilding, or project a hopeful future. In our time, this pattern of thinking can be recognized in the frequent reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the American dream, or the Constitution of the United States. In second-temple times, the epic of Israel was a rich reservoir of ideal types, and all of them were used at one time or another in the process of mythmaking. Adam, Abraham, the covenants, Moses, the exodus, the law, the temple charter in Leviticus, the entrance into the land, David, Solomon, the building of the temple, the kingdoms, the prophets, and so forth could all be cast as icons of Israel's sociology and used for comparison and contrast with the contemporary situation.

    The Jews did not need to learn a new set of tricks to use their epic this way. Jews had been revising their epic history since the time of David and Solomon. Reimagining the past was their way of mythmaking. The past provided standards for contemporary social critique. It could also lend authority to proposals for shaping society anew. Biblical scholars count four major revisions of the epic before the deportation of Jews in 587 B.C.E. brought to an end the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. These revisions are traditionally known as J for the Yahwist, E for the Elohist, D for the Deuteronomist, and P for the Priestly school. In each case, these revisions markedly changed the constitution of Israel by rewriting the epic. In the case of P,


    for instance, the book of Leviticus was added to Moses' instructions and the stories of sacrificial covenant were added to the legends of the patriarchs in order to locate the legal foundations for the temple-state at the beginning of the epic. After the exile no one dared to actually rewrite the story in this way, for the five books of Moses were now in many hands in many lands, "published," as it were, so that changing the text itself was not the thing to do. But other ways were found to rehearse the story from a revisionist perspective. The author of Chronicles rewrote the history in a separate account, adding some things and leaving out some things to make it read another way. Ben Sira summarized the epic in a poem that gave him the opportunity to recast it radically. At Qumran and in the synagogues of Alexandria, two different methods of writing commentaries on the Jewish scriptures were devised. Everyone was involved in retelling the story of Israel.

    The problem with this approach as a response to the Roman era was that an ethnic bias belonged to every national epic. How could reading a provincial epic ever produce enlightenment fit for a multicultural scene? Jewish intellectuals were painfully aware of this problem, especially in the diaspora where the cultural mix was a fact of daily life and the Jews were on display with their meetings, associations, and schools. It was there that scholars with a philosophic bent tackled the problem of Jews and "the nations" (ethne, later translated by the old Latin, gentilis, "foreign," from which we get the English "gentiles."). A great deal of speculation centered on the figure of Adam, the first human being. It is important to realize that, in early Jewish thought, a personified abstraction could be storied as an individual without losing its generic or social significance. Thus "Adam" meant humankind, and "Israel" meant the people of Israel, even though each could also be pictured and storied as a particular person. One of the two stories in Genesis about the origins of the human race said that humankind had been created in the image of God. That was certainly cause for reflection, and scholars in the wisdom tradition, from Ben Sira, through the author of the Wisdom of Solomon, to Philo, lingered long over that text. The story of Noah, also, was a good place to reflect on the standing of the nations in the eyes of the God of Israel. The rainbow's promise was not the private property of the Jews. And even Abraham, the figure with whom the story of Israel actually began, was curiously blessed and chosen by God to receive the promises long before the divine instructions were given to Moses. What about the way God treated Abraham as a sign that the gentiles must be welcomed into the family of God? It may seem strange to us that, given the availability of very sophisticated anthropologies and psychologies in the Greek philosophical traditions, Jewish thinkers would prefer to work out their classifications of human beings by worrying these old stories into making a point or two about where the gentiles stood in the larger scheme of things divine. But to see the point about the gentiles there in one's own epic, that is what made the point telling.

    This approach did not break out of the ethnic bias inherent in the Jewish epic, but it did allow Jewish intellectuals to recognize their multicultural world and deal


    with it without having to give up on their own grand traditions. And it did force the issue of exclusivity. Philo's allegorical commentaries on the five books of Moses document a major effort in the Alexandrian synagogue to interpret the laws of Moses so that gentiles could understand them, appreciate them, and keep them. We now know that non Jews found diaspora synagogues to be a very attractive subcultural association, and that gentiles did gather around to study the scriptures, rehearse the epic, honor the one God, celebrate the feasts and festivals, and learn to keep the Jews' laws with their high ethical standards. Naturally there were debates galore about whether the gentiles would have to go all the way in order to belong to the association of Israel. That would have meant being circumcised, keeping whatever form of kosher was in practice, and perhaps paying a temple tax. Some Jews said yes, they should go all the way. Others said no, it did not matter. But either way, the result of the Jewish preoccupation with their scriptures was that Homer and the Greek philosophical tradition were not the only resources available for doing social critique or for thinking about better and less better ways to live together in the Greco-Roman age.

    Galilee happened to be a perfect place to experiment with social critique and try out new ideas about a better way to live. Its people were wide awake, worldly wise, and protective of their way of life. They had survived the foreign rule, at one time or another, of all the powers in the ancient Near East without, apparently, taking sides. There is no record of Galileans fighting under their own banner, trying to rid their land of unwanted foreign kings. They had no capital city to defend and no king to rule them. They granted token allegiance to each new foreign king and then looked for ways to protect themselves from the king's long arm. They could do that because they enjoyed a bit of distance from the cultural and political forces that swirled around them. That was because Galilee was not open to or easily annexed by either the kingdoms to the north or to the south. It formed a little inland district of its own, bounded by mountains to the north, west, and south, and the Lake of Genneseret (or Sea of Galilee) to the east. Their way of life was worth protecting. They lived among rocky hills and gentle valleys, dotted with small villages and abundantly watered by springs and rains. They were self-sufficient, producing a healthy economy of fish, wine, grains, olives, and fruits, as well as crafts. There were mineral hot springs at Tiberias and Gadara. These, and the tropical climate around the Sea of Galilee, made the area attractive as a health resort. And with major roadways open to the main north-south highways, one along the seacoast and another across the highlands of the Transjordan to the east, Galilee had constant contact with the rest of the world.

    It is important to remember that Galilee was ruled by the kings of Jerusalem only twice in the preceding one thousand years, and then for only brief periods of time. David did add Galilee to his kingdom, it is true, and the old stories tell about the tribes of Naphthali, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, and Dan settling there. However, these stories also say that the tribes of Israel were not able to drive out the indigenous


    inhabitants. And as for belonging to the kingdoms of David and Solomon, an arrangement that lasted less than eighty years (1000 to 922 B.C.E.), Solomon gave twenty Galilean cities back to Hiram, king of Tyre, in exchange for building materials. Then, what was left of Galilee was part of the old northern kingdom of Israel centered at Shechem (Samaria), not Jerusalem. After that kingdom came to an end in 722 B.C.E., Galilee was ruled by Damascus, Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Persia, the Ptolemies, and the Seleucids before it was again overrun by kings in Jerusalem (the Hasmoneans) in 104 B.C.E. There is nothing to suggest that the Galileans were happy about this annexation. The people who lived in Galilee were Galileans, not Syrians, not Samaritans, not Jews. It was, as the later rabbis would say, the "district of the gentiles."

    During the Hellenistic period, Galilee was introduced to Greek language, philosophy, art, and culture through the founding of cities on the Greek model in strategic locations up and down the Jordan river valley (Caesarea Philippi, Philoteria, Scythopolis), on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee (Bethsaida, Hippos, Gadara), along the seacoast to the west (Ptolemais, Dora, Caesarea), and eventually within Galilee itself (Sepphoris, Tiberius, Agrippina). With them came Greek learning, Greek schools with their gymnasia, theaters, forums, and political institutions. During the time of Jesus there were twelve Greek cities within a twenty-five-mile radius of his hometown, Nazareth.

    Jesus grew up in Galilee and apparently had some education. He was certainly bright enough, judging from the movements that remembered him as their founder. But as we are now coming to see, it is all but impossible to say anything more about him as a person, much less write a biography about his life. The "memories" of him differ, and they are so obviously mythic that the best we can do is to draw a conclusion or two from the earliest strata of the teachings attributed to him. These teachings belonged to the movements that started in his name. We have to infer what kind of a teacher he was from the teachings that developed in these movements. He must have been something of an intellectual, for the teachings of the movements stemming from him are highly charged with penetrating insights and ideas. He also must have been capable of suggesting ways to live with purpose in the midst of complex social circumstances. But he was not a constructive, systematic thinker of the kind who formulate philosophies or theologies. He did not create a social program for others to follow or a religion that invited others to see him as a god. He simply saw things more clearly than most, made sense when he talked about life in his world, and must have attracted others to join him in looking at the world a certain way. What we have as evidence for this is the way his followers learned to talk about living in the world. They said that Jesus had talked that way too.

    The tenor of that talk can be seen in the teachings of Jesus his followers preserved. These teachings are really a collection of pithy aphorisms that strike to the heart of ethical issues, not the usual proverbs, maxims, or principles that one would expect from the founder-teacher of a school tradition. But a close analysis of these


    aphorisms reveals the interweaving of two themes that mark the genius of the movement. One is a playful, edgy challenge to take up a countercultural lifestyle. This challenge was made in all seriousness, but it was marked by humor, and one can still sense the enjoyment these Jesus people took in watching the conventional world do double takes at the very thoughts they expressed and the behavior they enjoined. The closest analogy for this kind of invitation to live against the stream is found in Cynic discourse of the time. It does appear that Jesus was attracted to this popular ethical philosophy as a way for individuals to keep their integrity in the midst of a compromising world. The other theme is an interest in a social concept called the "kingdom of God." This concept was not worked out with any clarity, but the ways it was used show that something of a social vision appeared in the teachings of Jesus. The kingdom of God referred to an ideal society imagined as an alternative to the way in which the world was working under the Romans. But it also referred to an alternative way of life that anyone could take at any time. In this sense the kingdom of God could be realized simply by daring to live differently from the normal conventions. The kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus was not an apocalyptic or heavenly projection of an otherworldly desire. It was driven by a desire to think that there must be a better way to live together than the present state of affairs. And it called for a change of behavior in the present on the part of individuals invested in the vision. Thus the teachings of Jesus can be described as the creative combination of these two themes, or a challenge to the individual to explore an alternative social notion.

    If so, Jesus' genius was to let the sparks fly between two different cultural sensibilities, the Greek and the Semitic. The Greek tradition of philosophy had been forced to focus on the question of individual virtue as a last-ditch stand for human dignity and integrity in a world without a polis, one that was no longer structured as a sane society. The Cynic-like challenge in the teachings of Jesus picked up on this bottom line from the grand traditions of Greek philosophy. The ancient Near Eastern legacy said that individualism would not do. People were only people when they lived together. A person had to belong to a working society in which ethical values addressed the well-being of the collective. A social anthropology determined that some social vision give guidance to a critique of the Roman world and suggest a better way to live together. By bringing the two cultural traditions together and making contact between them, the pitch for a change in personal lifestyle and the vague but potentially powerful symbol of an alternative society, the electrodes short-circuited, and Jesus started a movement. Everything essential was present in the package: social critique, alternative social vision, divine sovereignty, and personal virtue. And yet, nothing was present except general ideas. Nothing was spelled out. Everything was left to more talking, thinking, and experimentation with the new ideas.

    And that is exactly what happened. Kingdom talk started with the teachings of Jesus and then attracted more and more people. We can't be sure of all the ways little groups formed, or how the kingdom movement spread from place to place.


    What we do know is that, by the time writings from the Jesus people began to appear, talk about the kingdom had resulted in the formation of wondrously different kinds of association. One line can be traced from the earliest Jesus movement, through Matthew's gospel, to later communities that understood themselves as Jewish Christians. These people emphasized lifestyle and found a way to bring the behavior of the Jesus movement into line with more traditional Jewish codes of ethics. This approach produced communities that lasted for centuries, such as the Ebionites and Nazareans. But they were not the ones that gave birth to the Christianity of the Bible. Another line takes off from the Sayings Gospel Q, runs through the Gospel of Thomas where Jesus' teachings were understood to bring enlightenment about one's true self, and ends up in gnostic circles. These people cultivated the invitation to personal virtue and thought of the kingdom of God as an otherworldly dimension of spiritual existence where true human being had its origin and end. This approach may have been the most attractive form of Christianity during the second to fourth centuries. But it was finally squelched by the institutional form of Christian tradition that called itself the church. The church's trajectory had worked its way through northern Syria and Asia Minor where the Christ cult formed to justify the inclusion of both gentiles and Jews in the kingdom of God. It was this trajectory that converged on Rome, developed the notion of the universal church (from catholicus, meaning "general"), and created the Bible as its charter.

    And so a new religion emerged. As we prepare to enter into the provincial world of its first manifestations in Galilee, trying to keep up with its rapid spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean, eventually to see it become the religion of the Roman Empire, a word of caution may be in order. The ways these Christians addressed the issues of their time will often appear to be silly, sometimes absurd, frequently extravagant, and only once in a while breathtaking. We will need some good shoes with very sharp spikes to keep from falling off the logs as we jump from text to text in this period of rapid social and cultural change. The present chapter was written to help us keep our balance as we proceed. Every feature of the Greco-Roman age mentioned here will return for reconsideration in the early history of Christianity: law, kings and tyrants, kingdoms, associations, meals, myths, rituals, cosmologies, cosmogonies, the gods, the mystery cults, noble deaths, redeemers, oracles, epic history, and ethics. That Christianity emerged just when it did, that it drew now upon some Jewish roots, now upon Greek ideas, and that it eventually found itself infatuated with the thought of Roman power, are all crucial for the story about to be told. Only by keeping the larger world in view will it be possible to see that these early Christians were not gullible, eccentric, or mad, given to ecstasies, visions, and religious experiences of personal transformation. Though their claims were often wild and extravagant, we need to see that they were actually engaging their troubled times. Early Christianity was a creative, if daring, response to the multicultural challenge of the Greco-Roman age.



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    [ 43 ]



    Jesus movements started in Galilee during the 30s and 40s of the first century C.E. Loosely knit groups of people gathered around a novel combination of three ideas that had been in the air since the breakdown of traditional cultures characteristic of the Greco-Roman age. The combination of these ideas generated a great deal of excitement. One was the vague notion of a perfect society conceptualized as a kingdom. This was a notion that many groups had used to imagine a better way to live than suffering under the Romans. The Jesus people latched onto this idea and acted as if the kingdom they imagined was a real possibility despite the Romans. They called it the kingdom of God.

    A second idea was that any individual, no matter of what extraction, status, or innate capacity, was fit for this kingdom and could act accordingly if only one would. The idea of personal responsibility for virtue, or actually living in accordance with one's view of the world, had been thoroughly discussed by popular philosophers of all persuasions during the Hellenistic period. The Jesus people said, in effect, "Come on, you can do it, you can live as if you belonged to the kingdom of God," and "If you do, the kingdom of God will surely take place in this very world."

    The third idea was a result of the combination of the first two. It was the novel notion that a mixture of people was exactly what the kingdom of God should look like. What a heady social concept that must have been, cutting across social and cultural boundaries, putting together a radically individualistic appeal with a thoroughly social aim, and insisting that the gap between an unbelievable ideal and its social incarnation could actually be bridged! No wonder these people attracted attention.

    Imagine yourself going to market in the next larger village and overhearing two or three persons talking about these ideas. You smile, think they are engaging in adolescent craziness, and move on to the next stall. But a line or two may have caught your attention, and on the next market day you cannot resist looking to see if they are there again. They are not, and you ask a man selling pots if he remembers


    them, knows anything. He does remember but knows nothing. You ask around. Two or three others had listened in and knew the village where one of the young persons, lived. So little by little you are drawn into an informal network of unlikely acquaintances, some of whom become rather regular contacts, until finally you find yourself meeting once in a while with a small group of friends who have gotten quite serious about the novel set of ideas.

    At first the talk has to be about the ideas themselves, how everyone in the group understands them, and what anyone in the group may have heard that others in other groups said. You find yourself startled to see how many different thoughts and; views there are. You thought you knew what a kingdom was and what the word goal meant. You say that "kingdom" has to mean kingdom, does it not, and "god," God, doesn't it? The others look at you, smile, ask whose god you have in mind, tease you about being Jewish, then get serious and listen while you spell out what you think: these big words mean. And so it goes until, having reached a few agreements among yourselves on what the kingdom of God must look like, your group starts to wonder what is wrong with the world that it works another way. Now social and cultural critique become the order of the day, until finally you catch one another's eyes across the room and someone says, "Well, why don't we, at least, treat each other as if we belonged to the kingdom?"

    And so the Jesus movements began. Each group or small network of groups worked out the details as they went along. We can see at once that different cultural and personal histories would determine the way in which a given, group came to its own understanding of the kingdom of God. For the first forty years we are able to identify at least seven different streams within the Jesus movement, though there may have been many more. We are fortunate to know anything, because this was a very experimental period when rapidly expanding groups were radically changing their views. At first no one thought to record any of this history, and besides, there was little to report except lore, hearsay, and ad hoc conversations. That we have any written materials from this period at all is a combination of sheer historical accident on the one hand, and laborious scholarly investigation on the other. The historical accident is that some of the first attempts to write things down, and share ideas were saved, embellished, and eventually reworked by later writers' whose writings happened to be included in the New Testament. If that had not happened, most of the memories and records of the early period would have been lost forever, for neither the early movements nor the later church were interested i keeping these early memory traditions alive.

    From this early period we can identify five different groups of Jesus people from whom we have some documentary evidence, plus a "family of Jesus" group for which there are only a handful of clues, and the congregations of the Christ to which we shall turn in the next chapter. I will refer to the five groups within the Jesus movement as (1) the Community of Q who produced the Sayings Gospel Q. (2) the Jesus School that produced the pre-Markan pronouncement stories, (3) the


    True Disciples who produced the Gospel of Thomas, (4) the Congregation of Israel who composed the pre-Markan sets of miracle stories, and (5) the Jerusalem Pillars about whom we have only an early report from Paul in his letter to the Galatians.

    Each of these groups differs from the others in important ways, but they do share some characteristics. One common feature has already been noted, namely their investment in the idea of the kingdom of God and the fact that they all were engaged in some kind of group formation. Another feature that may have been shared, though it is more difficult to document in every group, is the practice of meeting together for meals. And, of course, all of them considered Jesus the founder of their movement. But after that, each group developed differently, and the different views and practices that developed are evidence for the fact that Jesus did not provide a program for starting a new religion. If he did, his followers did not understand what it was. The many views they came up with, both about what the kingdom should be and about what Jesus must have been, tell against a clear and common conception of the kingdom. We are thus faced with the fact that many people were involved in thinking about the kingdom and drawing conclusions about what their group should be like. The road from Jesus to the Christian religion that finally emerged in the fourth century, with its myth of Jesus as the son of God solidly in place, is a very long and twisty path. Christianity was not born of an immaculate conception. It was the product of myriad moments of intellectual labor and negotiated social agreements by the people investing in the experiment.

    This discovery has been difficult for many Christians to accept. That is because the traditional picture of Christian beginnings starts with a Jesus who knows in advance what is required of him and his disciples in order to establish the Christian religion. The way Luke tells the story in his two-volume history of Christian origins, for instance, is that after his death but before his ascension Jesus announced the establishment of the First Christian Church of Jerusalem by means of the outpouring of God's Spirit on the next day of Pentecost (Acts 1-2). We now know that Luke wrote his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles in the early second century, seventy-live or more years after the time of Jesus, and that he had his reasons for wanting to imagine things that way. We shall explore those reasons later. For now, the point to be made is that there is not a trace of evidence in any of the early Jesus materials to support such a view. No early Jesus group thought of Jesus as the Christ or of itself its a Christian church. We will have to account for such ideas when we encounter them for the first time in later texts from more developed communities. In the present chapter, our task will be to give the Jesus movement its due, describing each of the groups we know about separately, and treating them as understandable, human efforts to respond to the challenging idea of the kingdom of God in the midst of the Greco-Roman world.

    But what, then, about the historical Jesus? Should not a book about Christian origins and the New Testament start with a chapter on the historical Jesus? The answer is no. It is neither possible nor necessary to say very much about the historical


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    Q will put us in touch with the first followers of Jesus. It is the earliest written record we have from the Jesus movement, and it is a precious text indeed. That is because it documents the history of a single group of Jesus people for a period of about fifty years, from the time of Jesus in the 20s until after the Roman Jewish war in the 70s. The remarkable thing about this group is that they developed into a tightly knit community and produced a grandly sweeping mythology merely by attributing more and more teachings to Jesus. They did not need to imagine Jesus in the role of a god or tell stories about his resurrection from the dead in order to honor him as a teacher. The earliest layer of the teachings of Jesus in Q are the least embellished of any of his sayings in any extant document. That means that Q puts us as close to the historical Jesus as we will ever be. Thus the importance of Q is enormous. It has enabled us to reconsider and revise the traditional picture of early Christian history by filling in the time from Jesus until just after the destruction of Jerusalem when the first narrative gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was written.

    Q is from the German word Quelle, meaning "source." The text got that name when scholars discovered that both Matthew and Luke had used a collection of the sayings of Jesus as one of the "sources" for their gospels, the other being the Gospel


    of Mark. Scholars have known for over 150 years that something like Q must have existed, but they took it for granted until recently. After all, we already knew what the content of the document was, for the teachings from it were right there in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. And besides, since we did not have an independent manuscript of Q, that having been lost in the shuffle early in the second century, extremely detailed knowledge of both Matthew and Luke would be necessary should one want to reconstruct the original text they had in common. One would have to line up the sayings from Matthew and Luke in parallel columns and decide between them in cases where the wording differed slightly. What a surprise it was, then, when a few scholars got curious, started to reconstruct a unified text, and took a close look at Q as a piece of literature all its own, a piece of literature that had sustained a Jesus movement for half a century before Matthew and Luke ever thought to merge it with Mark's story of Jesus. Voila. An entirely different world of Christian beginnings came into view. I have told that story in my book The Lost Gospel (1993), where the reader will find an English translation of the text of Q and a more detailed history of the Community of Q.

    Since the text of Q will not be found printed separately in anyone's copy of the New Testament, I will have to refer to its contents in this book by citing chapter and verse in the Gospel of Luke. Luke is preferred over Matthew because, in the majority of cases, Luke did not alter the terminology and sequence of the sayings as much as Matthew did. I will therefore quote Luke as if I were citing Q (thus Q 11:1-4 = Luke 11:1-4). The disadvantage of this approach is that, without having the text of Q in hand, you may not find it easy to reimagine how these familiar sayings must have sounded coming from the mouth of another kind of Jesus, one that was not on. his way to Jerusalem to die according to the plot of Mark's story. The Greek text in parallel columns is available in John Kloppenborg's Q Parallels (1988). A critical edition of the unified Greek text is being produced by the International Q Project under the direction of James Robinson at Claremont.

    Q brings the early Jesus people into focus, and it is a picture so different from that which anyone ever imagined as to be startling. Instead of people meeting to worship a risen Christ, as in the Pauline congregations, or worrying about what it meant to be a follower of a martyr, as in the Markan community, the people of Q were fully preoccupied with questions about the kingdom of God in the present and the behavior required if one took it seriously. The picture is busy. People are bumping into one another in the country villages, on the road, at one another's homes, and in the towns. There are mothers and neighbors, farmers and lawyers, tax collectors and Roman soldiers, all crowding into the picture. It is a picture of life in the public arena of first-century Galilee, life defined as the encounter with other human beings in their various social roles. The people of Q were taking it on the bounce, intrigued with what happened when one chose to deviate from the usual norms of behavior and live by the rule(s) of the kingdom of God.


    Recent scholarship has found it possible to identify three layers of instructional material in Q. Each of these layers corresponds to a stage in the history of the Q community. That makes Q an especially precious document, for it allows us to trace the history of the early Jesus movement through periods of change in the way it talked about the kingdom and understood itself in relation to that idea. No other text or set of texts from the first century lets us fill in an entire history of an early "Christian" community-in-the-making in this way. Scholars now refer to these three layers as Q1, Q2, and Q3. The earliest layer, Q1, consists largely of sayings about the wisdom of being a true follower of Jesus. Q2, on the other hand, introduces prophetic and apocalyptic pronouncements of judgment upon those who refused to listen to the Jesus people. And Q3 registers a retreat from the fray of public encounter to entertain thoughts of patience and piety for the enlightened ones while they wait for their moment of glory in some future time at the end of human history. An outline of Q divided into its layers of tradition is given in appendix B.

    The remarkable thing about Q1 material is that it argues for a countercultural lifestyle by turning aphorisms into behavioral prescriptions. An outrageous retort, such as "Let the dead bury the dead," can be isolated at the core of a small cluster of sayings that turn it into a principle for behavior befitting the new kingdom. In this case, the behavior recommended is that of single-minded commitment to the kingdom (Q 9:57-62). These units of composition were not completely destroyed in the subsequent rearrangements and additions to the collection, thus giving modern scholars the chance to recognize the earlier material. The resulting themes of seven blocks of Q1 material can be summed up as follows. The first rather large unit (Q 6:20-49) consists of Jesus' teaching on such things as those to whom the kingdom of God belongs ("the poor, the hungry, those who are crying"), how to treat others ("as you want people to treat you, do the same to them"), and making judgments about others ("don't judge and you won't be judged"). The second block of Q material is about becoming a follower and working for the kingdom of God (Q 9:57-10:11). The third is about having confidence to ask for God's ("the Father's") care (Q 11:1-13). The fourth says that one should not be afraid to speak out (Q 12:2-7). The fifth explains that one should not worry about food and clothing and that the desire for personal possessions is foolish (Q 12:13-34). The sixth teaches that, like weed seeds and leaven, the kingdom will eventually take over (Q 13:18-21). And the seventh is about the cost of being a follower and the consequences of not taking the movement seriously (Q 14:11, 16-24, 26-27, 34-35). If we date this material about 50 C.E., toward the end of the first twenty years of the movement, we can see what the Jesus people had been doing. They had been deeply involved in defining exactly what it meant to belong to the school of Jesus. And they had spent a great deal of thought and intellectual effort in finding arguments for a certain set of attitudes and actions as definitive for the kingdom of God. Can we sharpen the profile of the lifestyle they were recommending?


    If we make a list of the imperatives that lie close to the core of the smaller units of Q1 material, we can begin to see that a program of some kind must have been in the minds of these early Jesus people. The list includes the following imperatives or rules of kingdom behavior:

    Love your enemies. (Q 6:2 7)
    If struck on one cheek, offer the other. (Q 6:29)
    Give to everyone who begs. (Q 6:30)
    Judge not and you won't be judged. (Q 6:3 7)
    First remove the stick from your own eye. (Q 6:42)
    Leave the dead to bury their dead. (Q 9:60)
    Go out as lambs among wolves. (Q 10:3)
    Carry no money, bag, or sandals. (Q 10:4)
    Say, "The kingdom of God has come near to you." (Q 10:9)
    Ask, and it will be given to you. (Q 11:9)
    Don't worry about your living. (Q 12:22)
    Make sure of God's rule over you. (Q 12:31)

    A rather risky program seems to have been in effect. If we ask about the overarching rationale for such behavior, themes begin to surface that suggest a thoroughgoing critique of conventional culture. Riches, misuse of authority and power, hypocrisies and pretensions, social and economic inequities, injustices, and even the normal reasons for family loyalties are all under suspicion. The kingdom ideal is being set over against traditional mores by directing that the followers of Jesus should practice voluntary poverty, severance of family ties, renunciation of needs, fearlessness in speaking out, nonretaliation, and, in general, living as children of the God revealed in the natural order of the world who "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good" (Matt. 5:45; cf. Q 6:3 5). Quite a program. Does it make any sense?

    The answer is yes, indeed. The lifestyle of the Jesus people bears remarkable resemblance to the Greek tradition of popular philosophy characteristic of the Cynics. Cynics also promoted an outrageous lifestyle as a way of criticizing conventional mores, and the themes of the two groups, the Cynics and the Jesus people, are largely overlapping. The Cynics saw themselves as "spies" on the foolish ways of conventional behavior, "physicians" whose profession was to diagnose the ills of society, and "disciples" of a simple way of life "according to nature." You can read about this in Epictetus' Discourse III, chapter 22, "On the calling of a Cynic," and in Diogenes Laertius' Lives of Antisthenes, Diogenes of Sinope, and Crates. Cynics were well-known figures throughout the empire, and everyone seemed to understand them. They were gadflies whose social critique had a point, and who made it with strikingly humorous twists of memorable gestures and sayings. Popping pretensions and pointing up the foolishness of normal standards of honor and shame were exactly what everyone expected from the Cynics. And their willingness to become the butt of their own biting but humorous style of critique had been a part of


    the social scene for centuries. Cynics helped the common people gain a little perspective on the way their world was working, take potshots at those in power in their palaces, and keep their sense of balance and humanity with knowing nods and humor. So people would have had no trouble understanding what the Jesus people were saying.

    The difference between the Jesus people and the Cynics was the seriousness with which the Jesus people took the new social vision of the kingdom of God. This reflects the influence of a Jewish concern for a real, working society as the necessary context for any individual well-being. It was this interest in exploring an alternative social vision that set the Jesus movement apart from a merely Cynic-like call for an authentic lifestyle only in the interest of individual virtue or integrity. One can still detect some Cynic-like humor in the aphoristic style of the core sayings: "Where your treasure, there your heart" (Q 12:34); "Can the blind lead the blind?" (Q 6:39); "Everyone who asks receives" (Q 11:10). Thus the earliest phase of the Jesus movement must have been characterized by a more playful spirit than that characterizing the Q1 material as we now have it. But the process of forming groups and taking themselves seriously as groups set a serious, non-Cynic attitude. All of the blocks of Q1 material reveal a studied attempt to spell out a clear set of codes for the Jesus movement as a social formation, codes that rotate around the need to know who truly belonged. The instructions in Q 10:1-11, for example, are for proper behavior when representing the Jesus movement in another town. These instructions show that a network of small house groups came into existence and could be counted upon to support the movement. Thus an early period of trying out a new kingdom idea by means of a Cynic-like lifestyle had evolved into a much more complicated enterprise. The focus was not just on a list of codes for defining a true disciple, but on setting standards for recognition and authentic relationships within the community of fellow followers of Jesus. The social formation of the Jesus people and the social vision of the kingdom of God had started to mirror each other.

    The mood in Q2 is drastically different. The process of social formation had taken its toll. Families had been torn apart, a Jewish code of strict behavior had been held up by others to chide or ostracize the Jesus people, certain towns had told them to bug off, and some erstwhile members had decided that the stress was too much. Loyalty was now the issue, and some Jesus people had to decide between the movement and their families. Those who stayed true despite the social tensions found some new reasons for saying yes to the Jesus movement, but most of these reasons were the flip side of rather extravagant, arguments as to why their opponents were so wrong. "Shame on you Pharisees. You are like graves, outwardly beautiful, but full of pollution inside" (Q 11:42; cf. Matt. 23:27). "I am telling you, Sodom will have a lighter punishment on the day of judgment than that town" (Q 10:12).

    Thus, instead of a playful, aphoristic style of social critique characteristic of the earliest period of social experimentation, or even the more serious tone of instruction that defined the later development at the Q1 level, these Jesus people had taken up a


    decidedly judgmental stance toward the world. Threatening apocalyptic pronouncements of doom were being directed against those who refused the kingdom program. It was now a matter of who was right, we or they. And the time for the kingdom's full realization had been postponed until the eschaton (last thing, end of history). It is obvious that the God who clothed the lilies and provided for the daily bread of any who asked would have to get involved with human history and its conflicts if the Jesus people were to project a future for their kingdom. But that apocalyptic future meant, in effect, yet another time of testing, a final testing, even for the followers of Jesus. And so, to the already high cost of discipleship had been added the threat of a final failure. If one's loyalty ever slackened, one might not enter the kingdom at the final judgment: "I tell you, everyone who has will receive more, and from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away" (Q 19:26). That some were willing to pay that price can mean only that the Jesus movement had somehow continued to be a very attractive alternative to the social ills of the time.

    The social conflicts reflected in Q2 probably took place during the 50s and 60s, although some of the sayings are best understood as language coined in the very shadow of the Roman Jewish war. With this kind of language ringing in their ears, the scribes in the Jesus movement had to revise their handbook of instructions from Jesus. They retained the earlier blocks of wise ethical instruction that we now identify as Q1, for these had become the standard teaching for the community. But they added prophetic and judgmental material to match the new mood. And they arranged the new handbook very carefully, weaving the judgmental material in and out of the earlier set of instructions to give the impression that the earlier material had originally been given with the final judgment in mind. This design is high-lighted in the outline of Q in appendix B. However, two conceptual problems had) to be solved in order to make such a revision work. One was that the Jesus people were accustomed to thinking of Jesus as a wisdom teacher and now needed to imagine him as having also been an apocalyptic prophet. That required a big shift in characterization. The other was that, having experienced failure and having postponed the fulfillment of their vision until a final day of vindication, the community was now in need of being very sure they were on the right track. That required a much broader horizon of cosmos and history than this community had I ever considered or needed. Both of these conceptual problems were solved by imaginative revisions of their picture of Jesus and his place in the epic history of Israel. These revisions were ingenious. Their first move was to introduce the figure of John (the Baptizer) and let him step forth first as a prophet of judgment and preacher of repentance (Q 3:7-9). Their second move was to have John predict a certain "coming one" who would separate the wheat from the chaff on "his threshing floor," wherever and whenever that might be (Q 3:16-17). Then, these scribes let John and Jesus talk about each other to see what each knew about the other (Q 7:18-19, 1


    22-28, 31-35). As these scribes imagined it, Jesus recognized John as the last of the prophets of Israel and thus the "one to come;" and John predicted an even "greater" one to come, who, of course, was Jesus. Jesus was "greater," according to the scribes, because he was both a sage and a prophet. He was a sage by virtue of his Q1 teachings. He was a prophet by virtue of the apocalyptic judgments that soon would be heard from his lips. The astonishing possibility given with this simple bit of imaginary history was that, as the child of wisdom, Jesus could know what God had wanted from the beginning of creation. And as an apocalyptic prophet, he could know what would happen at the end of time. Result: Jesus became the seer of history past and the prophet of history's end. His followers could slow be sure they were right where they ought to be, linked up with God's great plan for Israel and ready to take their places when the final judgment occurred. That imaginative solution to their conceptual problems has to be judged as a stroke of ingenious mythmaking no matter what one thinks of the myth itself. As for the historical John (the Baptizer) and the relation of his movement to that of Jesus, scholars are still puzzling over several options. The important thing for our purposes is that John entered the picture of the Q community's imagination of Jesus at a second stage of mythmaking in order to reimagine Jesus' own role (Cameron 1990). With such a Jesus as one's teacher, how could the Community of Q go wrong? They already knew the standard God would use at the end of time to judge between them and the rest of the world.

    The Q3 additions were made some time after the Roman Jewish war. They include the lament over Jerusalem (Q 13:34-3 5), the story of Jesus' temptation (Q 4:1-13), statements about the importance of the Mosaic law (Q 16:16-18), and a final promise to the faithful: "You who have followed me will sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Q 22:28-30). Q3 was not a major revision of the hand-hook, but it did introduce a number of new ideas about the relationship of the Q people to the history of Israel, and it did upgrade the mythology of Jesus to the level If a divine being who could be imagined talking to God as his Father and debating with Satan as his tempter. The topic in both cases was Jesus' own "authority over all the world" (Q 4:6-7). It seems that the dust had settled from the Q2 period and that the people of Q had toned down their sharp responses to those who were critical of them. Perhaps the war had taken care of erstwhile antagonists or changed the social landscape so drastically that the prewar stance of the movement now looked silly even to the Jesus people. In any case, the book of Q received a few additions that dulled the radical edge of the earlier material and made a kind of peace with more traditional ways of being the people of God while waiting for the kingdom. It was t he book of Q at the Q' level that attracted the attention of other Jesus groups, was copied and read for another generation within the Jesus movements, and was event incorporated into the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Then it was lost to history until modern scholars reconstructed it.



    The synoptic gospels include many little stories about Jesus that scholars call pronouncement stories.

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    Anecdotes of the kind told about Jesus were especially frequent among the Socratic, Cyrenaic, and Cynic traditions. Since that is so, it will be helpful to compare the stories just cited with a few typical Cynic anecdotes. A game of sorts seems to have been played with the Cynics by those courageous enough to confront them. Since Cynics lived in a kind of negative symbiosis with society, espousing indifference to its conventions, but actually being fully dependent upon it for their livelihood, almost any typical situation could be turned into a trap. The trick was to catch the Cynic in some inadvertent inconsistency by pointing out his lack of complete independence from society. The Cynic reveled in these encounters, taking them as opportunities to expose normal expectations as ridiculous. Thus the anecdote was a perfect medium for distilling the nature of such exchanges. In order to win, the Cynic had to put an altogether different construction upon things as if the challenger had not understood the situation. Strategies ranged from playful put-downs, through erudite observations and insights about human existence, and biting sarcasms, to devastating self-deprecations. But the retort was always phrased with a sense of humor in order to ease the blow. Here are some examples from Diogenes Laertius. I have numbered them for reference by using C for Cynic:

    (C-1) When censured for keeping bad company, Antisthenes replied, "Well, physicians attend their patients without catching the fever." (DL 6:6)

    (C-2) When someone said to Antisthenes, "Many praise you," he replied, "Why, what wrong have I done?" (DL 6:8)

    (C-3) When someone wanted to study with him, Diogenes gave him a fish to carry and told him to follow after him. When for embarrassment the student soon threw it away and left, Diogenes laughed and said, "Our friendship was broken by a fish." (DL 6:36)

    (C-4) "Most people," Diogenes said, "are so nearly mad that a finger makes all the difference. If you go about with your middle finger stretched out, people will think you mad, but if it is the little finger, they won't." (DL 6:3 5)

    (C-5) When someone reproached him for frequenting unclean places, Diogenes replied that the sun also enters the privies without becoming defiled. (DL 6:63)


    (C-6) When asked why he was begging from a statue, Diogenes replied, "To get practice in being refused." (DL 6:49)

    (C-7) When asked by someone whether he should marry, Bion answered, "If your wife is ugly she will be your bane, if beautiful you will not keep her to yourself." (DL 4:48)

    (C-8) Crates declared that ignominy and poverty were his native land, a country that fortune could never take captive. (DL 6:93)

    (C-9) When one of his students said to him, "Demonax, let us go to the Asclepium and pray for my son," he replied, "You must think Asclepius very deaf that he cannot hear our prayers from where we are." (Lucian, Demonax 27)

    The Greeks measured response by its humor and cleverness, and a certain logic was involved in getting off the hook unscathed. The French classicists Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant have used the term metis, or cunning intelligence, for the kind of crafty wisdom required (1978). Whereas sophia was the wisdom appropriate to conceptual systems and stable orders, metis was the savvy needed for contingent and threatening situations. Metis was the wisdom practiced by rhetors, doctors, navigators, and actors, as well as any who found themselves threatened by stronger forces or opponents. Metis was the skill required to size up the situation, bend to the impinging forces, feign entrapment, then suddenly shift positions in order to escape or, if lucky, turn the tables to come out on top. In the case of net fighting, for instance, the weaker would feign vulnerability, wait for the opponent's overreach, then grab his net and swing it back upon him. The Cynic anecdote is an excellent example of metis in the genre of riposte.

    The logic worked as follows. A questioner put the Cynic on the spot (C-5): How can you frequent places that are socially unacceptable (more than likely a euphemism' for houses of prostitution)? The first move was to identify the issue underlying the challenge. In this case it was the notion of being "contaminated" by visiting an "unclean" place, that is, a socially unacceptable place. The second move was to shift focus and find an example of "entering unclean places" in which contamination did not occur. The sun, for instance, "enters" privies without getting dirty The clever discorrelation between the two instances of entrance into unclean places created the humor. Explicit instruction was not the object. The interlocutor might not go away to meditate on theories of things clean or unclean. But he may well have laughed and let the Cynic go his way, or even caught the point about the arbitrary nature of the category unclean when used for a specific social circumstance. As for the Cynic, having accepted the challenge and having managed a momentary confusion in the logic of the situation, he was able to escape entrapment.

    The anecdotes attributed to Jesus operate by the same logic. In every case the Cynic swerve is characteristic of Jesus' rejoinder. The shifts in orders of discourse are easily identified. In J-1, the issue of contamination is scuttled by shifting thf focus from meal codes to medical practice. It is similar to the anecdote about


    Antisthenes in C-1. In J-2 the discrepancy pertains to times when fasting was appropriate and times when it was inappropriate. J-3 rides on the distinction between two sabbath rules, one a proscription and the other an allowance. In J-4 the incongruous is created by juxtaposing meal codes with a scatological observation. It is similar to Diogenes' response in C-5, which confuses social and natural contaminations. The put-downs in J-5 and J-6 ride on the critique of common social values having to do with class. The ambiguity of the terms is used to advantage in statements of contrast, much the same as in the response of Antisthenes when told he was being praised by many (C-2). In J-7 there are two twists. One is to shift from the question of ability to a consideration of difficulty, thus appearing to say yes, the rich might be able to enter the kingdom. But the other is to use an example of difficulty so ridiculous as to say no, there is not a chance. In J-8 the political (legal) and the religious (natural) orders are conjoined in a conundrum. As a conundrum, the answer is similar to Bion's response to the question about marriage in C-7. In J-9 two notions of blessedness are set in contrast but then confused by a shift in the orders of social relationship in view. And the Jesus anecdote in J-10 is quite like a large number of Cynic anecdotes in which students are sternly corrected for some misperception and thrown back upon their own resources for seeing things more clearly and for taking up the Cynic way. A milder form of the teacher's stance toward a would-be student is illustrated in C-3.

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    So Jesus came to be imagined as the founder-teacher of a movement that had worked out its self-definition in debate with Pharisaic teachings. This gives us a picture that is quite different from the Community of Q or, as we shall see, the "Thomas people, the Congregation of Israel, and the Jerusalem Pillars. A particular Jesus group, innocently and heavily invested in thinking of itself as okay by both Jewish and Jesus standards, though open to non Jews as a matter of course, experienced a social history that forced it to clarify its position in regard to Pharisaic rules. These people fell back on normal Hellenistic practice for a school tradition, namely to attribute all their reasons for thinking the way they did to their founder. But they did not have many reasons. They had not developed any theory or myth of Jesus' authority as a divine man, savior, or martyr for the new cause. And they had not developed an apocalyptic view of divine judgment upon their opponents at the end of History. What they did was to cast Jesus in the role of a lawyer, just like the stereotype of the scribes of the Pharisees, but then enhance his rhetorical skill in order to pest the scribes at their own game.

    Since part of the scribes' game was to appeal to the Hebrew scriptures as precedent law, these Jesus people also turned to the Hebrew scriptures to find some arguments for their champion. What they looked for were stories that could work both ways, as embarrassing contradictions for the scribal position as well as positive precedent for the Jesus people. An example would be the reference to what David did in Mark 2:23-28. When David and his companions were hungry, he did what was "not lawful," namely eating the bread from the altar in the temple, just as Jesus' and his disciples were charged by the Pharisees for "picking grain" unlawfully on the sabbath. The argument was that just as David was justified in breaking the temple law, so Jesus should be thought of as justified in breaking the Pharisees' code. This kind of reasoning was apparently the best this group could come up with.

    An exceptionally irregular feature occurred when these people decided to use Jesus anecdotes to register their debate with the scribes of the Pharisees. One learned in school how to turn a chreia into the story of a little debate between the protagonist and his challengers. One also learned how to "elaborate" the point of a chreia by providing a coherent set of arguments in its favor. In this case, the arguments were one's own, not those of the protagonist of the chreia. As the Jesus people


    developed chreiai into more elaborate argumentations, however, they chose not to take the credit for the arguments they had found. Instead, just as with the attribution of new teachings to the founder of a school, they let Jesus take the credit both for the chreia and for the arguments in its favor. And it so happened that the standard outline for the elaboration of a chreia ended with an authoritative pronouncement (Mack and Robbins 1989). This resulted in giving Jesus two prominent pronouncements in each elaborated chreia, with the last statement invariably making a pronouncement on the correctness of his own views. Thus, at the end of the chreia about plucking grain on the sabbath, Jesus says, "The sabbath was made for people, and not people for the sabbath. So the son of man is [circumlocution for "I am"] lord even of the sabbath" (Mark 2:27-28, emphasis added). Thus, whether inadvertently or on purpose, the Jesus School produced a self-referential authority for their founder-teacher. At first such a picture of Jesus seems fragile, if not foolish, and the logic of such argumentation weak. Should this self-referential style of Jesus' teachings be combined with other mythic roles for Jesus, however, an extremely impenetrable symbol of authority could result. We shall see one example of just such a development when we come to the Gospel of Mark. In the meantime, how should the Jesus School now take their place in the world, having cut themselves off from a prominent definition of Jewishness, one that apparently had been important enough for them to have taken the Pharisees' challenge very seriously? We cannot tell for sure, for we have only the Gospel of Mark as the next window into their thinking. Looking through that window, however, it does appear that the Jesus School suffered a period of deep disorientation and anger in the process of becoming an independent sect.


    In 1945 a collection of Jesus' sayings came to light among the Coptic-Gnostic texts of the now famous Nag Hammadi library. The incipit, or title, reads: "These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Judas Thomas the Twin recorded." The signature at the end reads: "The gospel according to Thomas." Scholars were stunned. Here was a real manuscript very much like the hypothesized Q, proving that Jesus people had actually produced gospels consisting only of his teachings. Of course it was in Coptic, and some of the sayings sounded gnostic, so at first it was difficult to see where the Gospel of Thomas might fit into the picture of Christian origins. Subsequent research has demonstrated that the importance of this discovery for reconstructing the early Jesus movements is enormous. The Coptic text is available with an English translation in a recent publication by HarperCollins (Marvin Meyer 1992). A commentary in the Hermeneia series is promised by Ron Cameron. The Coptic manuscript is a translation from an original Greek text that scholars date during the last quarter of the first century.

    Like the Sayings Gospel Q, the Gospel of Thomas consists only of the sayings of Jesus. In both cases there is a narrative scene at the beginning to set the stage for the


    rest of the document. In Q the appearance of John (the Baptizer) is used to introduce Jesus as an exceptional combination of prophet and sage. The Gospel of Thomas begins with thirteen sayings that introduce Jesus as the source of esoteric knowledge and that set Thomas apart from the other disciples. At the end of this introductory section there is a touch of narrative in which Jesus takes Thomas aside and "spoke three words to him." When Thomas returns to his friends, they ask him what Jesus said to him, and he replies, "If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and consume you" (GTh 13). Despite this narrative scene, however, a scene which is not set in any recognizable time or place, there is no biographical interest in Jesus' life, whether in Galilee or in reference to a crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem. The Thomas people, like the Q people, were interested only in Jesus' teachings. They thought of themselves as the True Disciples of Jesus.

    A comparison with the book of Q is instructive. Both documents are about the same length and both consist of the same kind of material: pithy aphorisms, instructions on behavior, analogies and parables to explain the kingdom of God, and statements that criticize those who are in the wrong. Of even greater significance is the fact that approximately one-third of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas have parallels in Q, and 60 percent of these are from the earliest layer of Q (Butts and Cameron 1987; Bradley McClean 1995; Kloppenborg 1990). Since scholars have not been able to find any indication that the Gospel of Thomas copied these sayings either from Q or from the synoptic gospels, it means that the Thomas tradition saved sayings from an early period when the Jesus movements shared similar teaching material. A few of those sayings having parallels in Q are even less obviously interpreted than in Q. However, many of the sayings are not only different from any found in Q but enigmatic and purposefully riddlelike. The conclusion must be that, like Q, the Gospel of Thomas documents a Jesus movement with its own distinctive history.

    Unraveling that history is a bit more difficult than in the case of the Q people. That is because scholars have not yet found a way to assign sayings in the Gospel of Thomas to layers in the history of its transmission. The collection did not grow in a way similar to that of Q, saving entire blocks of material that belonged to an earlier stage of composition. However, it is possible to make some observations about several kinds of material that must reflect stages in the history of the Thomas people.

    Starting with the last stage of collection, it is clear that a gnostic interpretation was intended for the collection as a whole. The first saying is about all of the sayings: "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death" (GTh 1). One can see that the point of Jesus' instruction at this last stage of the collection was understood as some kind of enlightenment with respect to a disciple's own destiny. Reading through the collection with that in mind, one sees that the disciple's enlightenment had to do with understanding one's true identity as a spiritual being. If the topic is the kingdom of God, the hidden interpretation is that "the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you" (GTh 3), or that it is "spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it" (GTh 113). If the question concerns the world


    the interpretation is that it is a "carcass" (GTh 56), a (mere) "body" (GTh 80), or a "field" that belongs to someone else (GTh 21). Jesus himself is not a "teacher" like other teachers. Instead, those who have arrived at the true interpretation of his teachings have become enlightened just as he is the enlightened one. They will no longer need him once they have come to see the light: "I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended" (GTh 13). "Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that person" (GTh 108). Thus Jesus is the symbol of enlightenment, the light itself: "I am the light that is over all things. I am all: From me all has come forth, and to me all has reached. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there" (GTh 77). This means that the true disciple must "Look to the living one as long as you live, or you might die and then try to see the living one, and you will be unable to see" (GTh 59). But "looking to the living one" is the same as coming to know one's own true being, and "When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living father" (GTh 3). A disciple who comes to see that he or she does not belong to the world but to the kingdom of God becomes a "passerby" with respect to the world (GTh 42) and a "single one" with respect to union with the divine. At the end of one's life there will be a return to the kingdom of light from which one originally came into the world (GTh 49-50).

    To end with a gnostic interpretation of the teachings of Jesus means that the Thomas people took a turn at some point in their history that the people of Q did not take. Fortunately for our purposes, the circumstances that accompanied that turn can still be discerned in a subtheme that courses through the Gospel of Thomas from beginning to end. That theme features "the disciples" of Jesus and the questions they ask of him, something completely lacking in the book of Q. The reference to the disciples is frequently collective. But Peter, Matthew, James, Thomas, Salome, and Mary are mentioned by name. James and Thomas serve as guarantors of the tradition. Salome and Mary say the right things and represent the True Disciples. Peter, Matthew, and "the disciples" collectively represent some group or groups of Jesus people with whom the Thomas people disagree.

    Throughout the text, these disciples ask the wrong questions and have to be corrected. Two themes occur repeatedly. One is that the disciples keep wanting to know about the future, when and where the kingdom will appear, and how they will know when it appears. It is obvious that some apocalyptic interpretation of Jesus' teachings was in view. Jesus treats their interest in the future as a gross misunderstanding of his teaching and goes on to explain that the kingdom is already present. The other theme has to do with ritual behavior. The disciples want to know whether and how they should fast, pray, give to charity, wash, diet, and whether circumcision is required. In every case Jesus treats their questions as silly and then goes on to turn the mention of the practice into a metaphor of enlightened self-understanding.


    So, for example, when the disciples ask Jesus, "Tell us how our end will be," Jesus responds by saying, "Blessed is the one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death" (GTh 18).

    This material is clearly polemical. The Thomas people knew that other Jesus groups had developed into apocalyptic communities on the one hand, and what might be called Jewish-Christian communities on the other. They were at pains to distinguish themselves from both these groups and did so by having Jesus himself counter the wrongheadedness of each. In order to do that, they developed two different rhetorical strategies. One was simply the put-down: No, you do not understand. "What you look for has come, but you do not know it" (GTh 51). This strategy meant that brand new sayings had to be crafted. The other approach was to take a treasured saying that seemed to say what the Thomas people did not want Jesus to say and interpret it away from its obvious meaning. An example is the apocalyptic saying, "Two will rest on a couch; one will die, one will live" (GTh 61). In Q, a similar saying is clearly intended in an apocalyptic sense: "I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left" (Q 17:34). In the Gospel of Thomas, by contrast, this saying is reinterpreted by having Salome understand correctly that the reference was not to an event of separation at the eschaton (end of time), but to an event of enlightenment involving Jesus and herself, for Jesus had lain with her at her table and taught her the true meaning of "die" and "live" (GTh 61-62).

    Thus we can be sure of at least three moments in the history of the Thomas people. They began as a Jesus movement that may have had much in common with the earliest phase of the Q movement. At some point they found themselves taking issue with two developments that others were entertaining, the cultivation of an apocalyptic mentality and a codification of ritual activities similar to Jewish practices. Having resisted both options, each of which was linked to a different view of what the community of Jesus people should be like, the Thomas people developed an ethos of detachment from the social world and cultivated the notion of an imaginary kingdom of light as the real world. This light-realm was thought to be a haven from the vicissitudes of a world seen as greedy, violent, and destructive. Many sayings in the Gospel of Thomas see the world as a place where one could be "gobbled up" or "eaten alive." By living "from" the light and "in" the light of true self-awareness, one could realize self-sufficiency and the sense of detachment that the gnostics called "repose." The goal was to remain "untouched" by the people, events, and concerns that motivated and controlled the social world.

    But what about the turn that the Thomas people took away from the people of Q and other branches of the Jesus movement? Was it any sharper than the turn taken by the Q people when they made their shift toward an apocalyptic view of history? Probably not. Both movements had their roots in the same tensive combination of ideas that was characteristic of Jesus' teaching, a call to change lifestyles and to manifest the kingdom of God. The Q people were haunted by the social vision that


    came with the language of the kingdom of God; the Thomas people picked up on the radical individualism of the lifestyle challenge. Neither was able to keep the original tension in balance, but both developed in ways that were understandable as responses to the troubled times.

    As for the social aspect of the kingdom of God, it appears that the Thomas people must have had a sense of community despite the radical reduction of all the kingdom symbols to metaphors of inward vision. The sayings are addressed to would-be disciples in the plural; there are instructions about how to view and treat one another as True Disciples; and there are a few hints that the group was interested in the symbolic significance of some rituals, such as baptism and table fellowship. So, although we cannot be sure of their practices, the Thomas people must have met together in order to cultivate their quest for personal transcendence.

    It is extremely important to see that the Thomas people developed the mythology of a Jesus movement by investing the sayings of Jesus with private and esoteric significance. Although these teachings counted as teachings of Jesus, they were actually the teachings of the Thomas community, for the Thomas community developed as any Hellenistic school tradition would have, by continuing to attribute new ideas to the founder of the school. But since the Thomas people knew that other movements held other views about the teachings of Jesus, they would have seen things differently. They would have said, "These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Judas Thomas the Twin recorded."

    Some scholars have been troubled by the term living Jesus, thinking that it must refer to the mythology of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. That would mean that the Thomas people were Christians who had turned the crucified savior into a gnostic redeemer. It is likely that the Thomas people were aware of Christian mythologies, and it is possible that their use of the term living Jesus was intended to bounce off such a mythology. But it is not the case that their view of Jesus as the embodiment of "light," "life," and "wisdom" was dependent upon a mythology of the resurrection. The wisdom of God, a female divinity with an elaborate mythology, could "exalt her sons" (Mack 1973). And the great figures of the history of Israel, such as Moses in the eyes of a Philo of Alexandria, could easily be imagined as having been transformed into the cosmic logos, or a "second god," without dying a sacrificial death. So Jesus became the symbol of incarnate light and life because that is what his teachings dispensed. There was no need for Jesus to perform miracles, prophesy the end of the world, die on the cross as a savior, or come again for the final judgment. His ubiquitous presence was already known everywhere his hidden teachings were correctly interpreted.


    Mark's story of Jesus is packed with preposterous stories of miracles that Jesus performs and of miraculous things that happen to Jesus. These stories create the impression of a divine power dramatically entering human history in the person of


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    (5:21-23, 35-43)


    FEEDING THE 5000
    (6:34-44, 53)




    FEEDING THE 4000


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    At some point during the first twenty years of the Jesus movements, a group formed in Jerusalem, presumably made up of Galileans. They left no written records or documents that we know of, but secondary reports can tell us some things about them. It is important to reconstruct what we can, simply because the picture most of us have in mind is highly mythologized and will frustrate our redescription of Christian origins unless we subject it to some analysis.

    The earliest report we have is from Paul's letter to the Galatians, written in 55 C.E. In this letter he tells of two visits he made to the "pillars" in Jerusalem for the purpose of comparing his gospel with theirs. Unfortunately, Paul does not go on to give us an account of their "gospel," but he does mention the names of Cephas (Peter), James, and John, and he does indicate the main issue. The overriding question had to do with the acceptance of gentiles into the kingdom movement, and especially whether


    the pillars in Jerusalem would demand that a gentile be circumcised. It is important to see that this was a question Paul himself wanted to have answered. It reflects issues that he had encountered in the Christian congregations to which he had been converted and especially in those he had founded. So we cannot be sure that the Jerusalem group had ever thought about such a problem, much less would have shared Paul's concern or interest in such a question. From Paul's report of the meeting, however, it is significant that they agreed that gentiles need not be circumcised and that their only request of Paul was that he "remember the poor," most probably a reference to themselves and their impoverished constituency. That is not much to go on, but it does allow us to think that the Jerusalem group must have been a Jesus movement, not a Christian congregation of the Pauline type, a distinction to be discussed in the next chapter.

    Three features of the Jerusalem group allow us to build a profile: (1) We have the names of its leaders, Cephas (Peter), James, and John; (2) Their location in Jerusalem and interest in residing there is taken for granted; (3) And there is the (apparent) acceptance of some distinctly Jewish ideas and practices, such as the purity codes governing table fellowship. The problem of making sense out of these three features is that no other early Jesus movement of which we have knowledge shared any of them. That Jesus had disciples (or students) is an idea integral to the Community of Q, the Congregation of Israel that produced the miracle story sets, and the Jesus School of the pronouncement stories. But none of these groups mentions Peter, James, and John, or any other disciple by name. The next mention we have of these named disciples, after reading about them in Paul's letter, is in Mark's gospel, written in the 70s, and Mark's story puts them in a bad light as students who did not understand their teacher. The same is true of the role played by Peter and "the disciples" in the Gospel of Thomas. These disciples were too dense to get the picture of the kingdom Jesus painted. We have to wait for Matthew's story, written in the 80s or 90s, to find the triumvirate rehabilitated as the perfect understudies of Jesus to whom the "keys to the kingdom" were given (Matt. 16:17-19). So we do not know very much about the real Peter, James, and John, the pillars at Jerusalem.

    As for other groups thinking that Jesus had any interest in Jerusalem, there are only two sayings in the material we have from the Jesus movements that bear on the question, and both are merely sidelong glances on the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. One is the lament in Q', "O Jerusalem.... How often would I have gathered your children together.... Behold your house is forsaken and desolate" (Q 13:34-3 5). The other is the saying of Jesus that "predicts" the temple's destruction, a most problematic saying in the Gospel of Thomas because, in its Markan form, it appears to be a Markan creation (GTh 71; Mark 14:58; Mack 1988, 294). That means that the motivation for the pillars to have taken up residence in Jerusalem has to be left to speculation, for there is no indication that other groups of Jesus people made a connection between Jesus, the Jesus movement, the kingdom of God, and the city of Jerusalem.


    That leaves the matter of the pillars' adherence to Jewish purity codes. Where questions of ritual purity surface in all of the other Jesus movements, the answer is the same: the Jesus people do not keep these codes. There is, in fact, a tendency to take pride in rejecting such an approach to group respectability and self-definition. So what are we to make of the fact that the pillars were on the other side of the issue?

    It is extremely difficult to understand what the Jerusalem group may have been thinking. There is nothing in the teachings of Jesus or in the early stories about him that would suggest a motivation for Jesus and his disciples going to Jerusalem in the first place, much less for Galileans to move there after Jesus was gone. Mark's story does not help, as we shall see, for three important reasons. One is that the plot he devised to get Jesus to Jerusalem could have been imagined only after the Roman-Jewish war. The second is that, if we were to accept Mark's story of Jesus' march to Jerusalem to confront the Jewish establishment, and he was killed as a great threat to the temple-state for something as innocuous as teaching and demonstrating in the temple courtyard, it is hard to imagine why his followers would not also have been threatened or killed when they took up residence to promote his program (M. Miller 1995). The third reason Mark's story doesn't help is that, according to Mark, Jesus and his disciples were bent on violating Jewish purity codes, not supporting them. So we need to come up with some other scenario that can make sense of the data we have from Paul.

    Mark was tendentious and critical in his portrayal of the disciples. That means that the disciples he had in mind must have represented a position with which Mark strongly disagreed. Might it have been a difference of opinion with regard to purity codes? In the Gospel of Thomas, Peter and the disciples do represent interest in keeping the Jewish purity codes. And that agrees with Paul's characterization of Peter and the pillars in Jerusalem. If Paul and the Gospel of Thomas are right about Peter and purity, that would certainly fit as the position against which Mark was writing. Thus, though we have no way of knowing for sure, it seems that Peter and company simply drew a set of conclusions about the kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus that differed from other Jesus groups.

    We might note that the Jerusalem experiment was apparently short-lived. At the end of Mark's story, Peter and the disciples are told to go to Galilee, perhaps instead of staying in Jerusalem to form a Christian congregation there. Mark may have known that Peter and the Jerusalem group were no longer residing in Jerusalem. Later traditions tell of the "flight" of the Jerusalem group to Pella on the eve of the war (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3,5,3), and Paul mentions that Peter later resided in Antioch (Gal. 2:11). As for James, it is said that he was martyred in the year 62 C.E., also during the buildup of hostilities that precipitated the outbreak of the Roman Jewish war in 66 C.E. What we are left with are fragmentary clues to a group that resided in Jerusalem for a relatively short period of time. Piecing these clues together, it seems that James, who was Jesus' brother, together with Peter and others, made some connections between Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God


    and the temple-kingdom in Jerusalem. What those connections may have been is unclear. Since they regarded the purity codes as compatible with Jesus' teaching, a position with which Matthew, writing much later, would agree, they may have appeared to many merely as a Pharisaic sect. But taking up residence in Jerusalem adds a touch of seriousness that indicates some political agenda. Perhaps they thought of themselves as a leaven, appropriately placed in Jerusalem to lift up the ideals of piety and thus contribute to its sustenance or regeneration as the city of the great king. The lament over Jerusalem in Q was written from just such a perspective, so we know that thoughts such as these were possible within the Jesus movements, even if not everyone held them. Unfortunately for the pillars, supposing that they thought Jesus' teachings about the kingdom were most appropriate for a school in Jerusalem, the destruction of the city meant the end of their mission as well.


    Many other groups may have formed in the wake of the historical Jesus. The few we have discussed are enough, however, to let us see what the first forty years of the Jesus movement was like. At the beginning, Jesus was remembered as a teacher who challenged individuals to think of themselves as citizens of the kingdom of God. The concept of the kingdom of God was apparently timely. It brought people together who were aware of the troubled times and gave them a forum for both talk and action. But the concept of the kingdom, though drawing upon notions that were already in the air and thus not completely vacuous, was nevertheless vague and inviting rather than clear and programmatic. Thus the various groups that formed in the schools of Jesus were experimental. They experienced rapid change as they attracted others by their talk of the kingdom, developed their own social practices and group identities, and responded to the pressures of giving an account of themselves as a little society with big ideas. The common strategy was to attribute the wisdom they had achieved to Jesus, putting it in the form of instruction from him by revising his teachings to match the school of thought they were developing. They did this just as any Hellenistic school of philosophy would have done. And the result of such a development was that the voice and thus the image of Jesus, their founder, was repeatedly recast as well. As we have seen, the portrayals of Jesus are strikingly different as one moves from group to group within the Jesus movement.

    The need to imagine Jesus as an authority for what a group had become is not difficult to understand. And the way in which that was handled by most Jesus groups, namely by attributing their teachings to him, can be explained as Hellenistic practice. But one other dimension of this early form of mythmaking is a bit less obvious and thus deserves a final observation. It was the way in which each of these groups tried to link its picture of Jesus to the grand traditions of Israel. Attributing the group's current teaching to the founder of its school of thought was not enough to grant the kind of authority required of a new movement that thought of itself as


    more than a school of philosophy. The Jesus movements were being guided by a comprehensive social vision to which persons found themselves granting fundamental loyalties and from which they were demanding a full range of identification as members of "a people." To be legitimate as "a people" meant that Jesus had to be imagined as more than a teacher. He had somehow to be authorized to offer the kind of radical instruction he gave for thinking of oneself differently, as if one belonged to a society or ethnos (race, tribe, nation) other than one's own. And so, for these reasons, and for others which we shall come across in the course of our investigation, models from the past, both of Israel and of the roles of Israel's leaders, soon came to mind.

    The ways the early Jesus groups thought of themselves as reconstituting Israel not only gave, them illustrious social models to work with, but it gave them a sense of heritage as well. The ways in which Jesus was associated with images from the past not only enhanced his stature as an important person but also laid claim to the authority such roles had in the history of the people Israel. Although these early attempts to align Jesus and the Jesus movements with the history of Israel were ad hoc, experimental, and tentative, they tell us that the investments people were making in these new social formations were serious business. That is because the attempt to align themselves with the history of I srael was not a simple task. It required considerable ingenuity. It should be seen as a remarkable intellectual achievement, for it was mythmaking against great odds, achieved under tense and trying circumstances. Suggestions had to click into place with only brief periods of time to test them and find them acceptable. And these mythic ideas had to be accepted not only as appropriate to the self-understanding of the group, but also as plausible. These early Jesus people were engaged in a form of mythmaking that can be called epic revision.

    The revision of Israel's epic history will become a theme as we proceed with our investigation of early Christian literary and mythmaking activity. We can already see that epic revision began at a very early period in all forms of the Jesus movement. The Q community started with memories of Jesus as a Cynic-like sage, found it helpful to expand that to the role of a prophet, then further enhanced that role in order to account for all the knowledge being attributed to him. They ended by thinking of him as the envoy of divine wisdom and the son of God, two roles that had the effect of turning the historical teacher into the appearance of a divine being and his teachings into a revelation of cosmic arrangements. Before they were finished, the Q people had positioned themselves toward the end of a sweeping view of history from its beginning at the creation of the world to its ending with a judgment scene in which either God or Jesus would use the Book of Q as the standard for admission to the final form and manifestation of the kingdom of God.

    Mythmaking in the Jesus School, among those who produced the pronouncement stories, did not proceed as rapidly or entertain such extravagant claims as within the Community of Q. Belonging to Israel was apparently taken for granted by the Jesus School, or at least had not become a serious issue for them until they


    ran into trouble by rejecting the Pharisaic purity codes. When that happened, they responded by thinking of Jesus as more than a match for the Pharisees. That resulted, however, in turning Jesus into an interpreter of the legal aspects of the epic in its function as Torah or constitution. They may have thought of Jesus as a super interpreter with extraordinary wisdom, but they do not seem to have gotten very far with finding precedent in the scriptures for the epic importance of such a figure, or for themselves as a legitimate form of God's people. They had just finished a round of argumentation in which Jesus won by rejecting the (Pharisaic interpretation of the) law. That was hardly a firm foundation for making a claim to be the legitimate heirs of the epic's promise. They did toy with comparing David and Jesus in the story about plucking grain on the sabbath (Mark 2:23-28) and they discovered the conundrum in Psalm 110:1 about who it was that David referred to as "my lord" (Mark 12:35-37). But forays such as these into the scriptures were desperate attempts to argue for independence from the Pharisees by finding contradictions within the Pharisees' own scriptures. The figures with which Jesus was implicitly associated, king David and a scribe of the Pharisees, actually canceled each other out because kings and scribes played different roles. They did not produce a mythic role for Jesus appropriate for the claims to legitimacy that would have to be made by the Jesus School. We will have to wait for Matthew's time before the role-of Jesus as an interpreter of the law could be successfully combined with a mythology of his role as wisdom's child and both seen as a fulfillment of the goal toward which the epic of Israel had been moving.

    The True Disciples who produced the Gospel of Thomas were much more interested in reconceiving the nature of the cosmos than in revising the history of Israel. But they too found it necessary to take a position against Pharisaic codes and ward off associations with major Jewish symbols such as the temple and its sacrificial system. If we note the incidence of androgynous images throughout the gospel, and their positive valence, it does appear that the Thomas people thought of Adam, the first human being, as God's intention for humankind, an ideal status that was lost when the "fall" happened as the story in Genesis relates. They had taken a big, imaginary leap over the entire history of Israel to land at the beginning when the world was first conceived in the mind of God. If Jesus' wisdom helped an individual to see himself or herself as part of the cosmos as originally designed, that must have counted as a kind of epic revision as well as a moment of gnostic enlightenment and transformation. The Thomas people had, in effect, "revised" the Israel epic by rejecting it.

    And as for the myth of origin constructed of miracle stories, we have seen how different it was from either the apocalyptic history of the Community of Q, the reinterpretation of the ethical intention of the Torah within the Jesus School, or the cosmic anthropology of the Thomas community. The Congregation of Israel picked up on the exodus story and delighted in the thought that, though their group was an unlikely bunch compared to contemporary notions of Israel as defined by


    ethnically pure Jews, the Jesus movement in their time was like the formation of Israel in Moses' time. They seized on miracle stories to recall epic precedent and to dramatize the change that was taking place in their lives as they came in contact with the Jesus people. This challenged them to think of themselves differently, as if they had found a new social identity.

    So serious mythmaking had begun. But none of these early attempts to associate Jesus with the history of Israel was systematic, as if a programmatic concept of the Jesus movement were being matched by a complex conception of Israel. They were instead suggestions based on single associations. They said, in effect, "Think of Jesus as a prophet" or "Think of us as a congregation-in-the-making on the model of Israel-in-the-wilderness." And each group came up with suggestions that differed from the others. This finding is significant. It means that the Jesus movement attracted new people on some basis other than its attempt to revise, reform, or revolutionize Judaism. The attractiveness of the movement was based on its invitation to experiment with the notion of the kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus, and it flowed from the energies people were investing in the groups that began to form. And yet, just because the social notion had its roots in Jewish mentality and its lineage in the epic of Israel, the attempts to revise that epic in the interest of finding precedent for the kingdom of God would have to be part of the mythmaking enterprise that defined Christianity. We shall see that epic revision was a constant factor in early Christian mythmaking for the next three hundred years.



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    Social movements change over time. They do so in response to new circumstances and also because experience within a group often introduces new patterns of behavior and thinking. Leaders rise and fall. Moods ebb and quicken. And strategies shift, sometimes abruptly. We watch, fascinated, because living in groups defines the human enterprise, and a people in the process of changing their patterns of life and thought always catches our attention. We might learn something, both about others and ourselves. The learning would be especially meaningful if it were focused on the formation of a pristine community whose strategies for living together still haunt us as a legacy left over from the foundational chapters of our own cultural history. Such a process of social formation is exactly what we are privileged to observe as the Christ cult emerged from the Jesus movement.

    Beginning somewhere in northern Syria, probably in the city of Antioch, and spreading through Asia Minor into Greece, the Jesus movement underwent a change of historic consequence. It was a change that turned the Jesus movement into a cult of a god called Jesus Christ. At first sight it is difficult to imagine that the Christ cult was at one time a Jesus movement, for the change was so drastic and appears to have happened so suddenly. But if we spread the process out, taking our time to move slowly through the complex developments of about twenty-five years of social experimentation, noting the clues that scholars have discovered for the reasons that underlay the transformations that took place, a very understandable history comes into view.

    The Christ cult differed from the Jesus movements in two major respects. One was a focus upon the significance of Jesus' death and destiny. Jesus' death was understood to have been an event that brought a new community into being. This focus on Jesus' death had the result of shifting attention away from the teachings of Jesus and away from a sense of belonging to his school. It engendered instead an elaborate preoccupation with notions of martyrdom, resurrection, and the transformation of Jesus into a divine, spiritual presence. The other major difference was the


    forming of a cult oriented to that spiritual presence. Hymns, prayers, acclamations, and doxologies were composed and performed when Christians met together in Jesus' name. Meals and other rituals of congregating celebrated both Jesus' memory and the presence of his spirit. These features are distinctive and mark the Christ cult as strikingly different from all the Jesus movements we have observed. How to account for that difference has been our task as scholars, and we have finally learned enough to track the shift from a Jesus movement to the Christ cult. This chapter will tell the story of that transition and offer an explanation for the myths and rituals these Christ people produced.

    Evidence for the Christ cult comes mainly from the letters of Paul written during the 50s. Were it not for his correspondence with these congregations we might never have known that such a cult existed, at least not at such an early period and surely not as the vigorous and spirited communities scholars have been able to reconstruct. We would not have known because even the slightly later forms of community that continued the Christ cult tradition were not able to comprehend the complex mythologies of the early Christ cult reflected in the letters of Paul, or to sustain its exuberant spirit. And had we only the early Jesus traditions from which to construct Christian origins, no modern scholar would have imagined that anything like the Christ cult would have or could have developed from them. So the letters of Paul are a precious bit of evidence for a first-century social experiment otherwise unimaginable. His letters are as important for our knowledge of the Christ cult as, for instance, the Dead Sea Scrolls are for our knowledge of the Qumran community.

    However, Paul's letters tell us much more about Paul and his own understanding of the Christ than about the cult to which he was converted. So we need to distinguish between the two if we want to understand the Christ cult as a development that was already in existence before Paul encountered it. The Christ people must have been making their presence felt in a way that aroused Paul's hostility when first he encountered them. And yet, they must have been attractive enough to have occasioned his later conversion. We shall explore the letters and the mind of Paul in the next two chapters. In the present chapter it is the Christ cult reflected in these letters that we want to understand.

    Fortunately, quite a bit of textual material from the Christ cult is available to us from the letters of Paul. That may seem strange, given the fact that the letters are clearly Paul's own compositions. But the happy circumstance is that Paul incorporated in his letters, not only the ideas he had gotten from these Christians, but also fragments from their literary production. These fragments of literary composition cannot be pieced together to give us a single, larger composition of any kind, so we have no composite text from these early communities. But the small units that have been preserved share a tenor and manifest other literary features such as poetic conventions that make of them a coherent set. This set of poetic fragments gives us enough information to paint a most interesting picture of the people Paul hated but couldn't resist. Because these people were the ones who first used the term Christ when referring to Jesus, we may think of them as the first Christians.


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    The most important texts for working out the logic of the Christ myth are found in Paul's letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:3-5) and Romans (Rom. 3:24-26 and 4:2 5). All focus on the significance that early Christians attributed to Jesus' death, and each brings to expression a distinctive if complementary view of the meaning of his death. Taken together, they contain all the clues we need to discover the rationale for their myth. Each deserves a closer look.

    I Corinthians 15:3-5

    This fragment has been called the kerygma (proclamation or gospel) of the early Christian community in keeping with Paul's description of it as the content of his preaching (1 Cor. 15:1-3). He also said that it was a "tradition" he had received and passed on in his preaching. The tradition was:

    That Christ died for our sins
        according to the scriptures;
            and that he was buried;
    and that he was raised on the third day
        according to the scriptures;
            and that he appeared
            (to Cephas, then to the twelve ...).

    The first thing to notice is that this text is formulaic and carefully composed. Four events are in view (death, burial, resurrection, appearance), two of which are fundamental, namely the death and the raising of the Christ. Each of these introduces a unit of composition that offers an interpretation of the event. The two units are


    balanced formally, that is they are composed of lines or thoughts that correspond to similar lines in the other unit. This feature is clearest in the reference to the scriptures, which is repeated in each unit, but it is also true of the rhetorical function of each subordinate event. The burial underscores the reality of Christ's death, just as the appearance underscores the reality of his having been raised. Only in the case of the primary significance of the death and the raising is there a slight bit of imbalance, namely that the death occurred "for our sins," while the raising occurred "on the third day." What we have is poetry, and it is polished. This kerygmatic formula was not created in a moment of inspiration. It reflects a lengthy period of collective, intellectual labor, including agreements about the value of focusing on Jesus' death as the event of significance for the community, what that significance was, the use of the name Christ (instead of Jesus), the thought that Christ had been raised, the importance of the reference to the scriptures, and the kind of argument that would make the two pivotal events seem real (burial and appearances).

    In order to get at the thinking packed into this creedal formulation, two mythologies that provide the logic underlying the entire enterprise need to be explained. One is the Greek myth of the noble death. The other is the Jewish myth of the persecuted sage, which has sometimes been called a wisdom tale. The concept of the noble death can be traced back through the history of Greek thought to its origin in the honor due the warrior who died for his country (or people, city, or its laws). With Socrates the application of the honor broadened to include philosophers and teachers who suffered banishment or death because of their teachings. In this case death was considered honorable if the teacher remained true to his teachings and died for them. This concept of the noble death was absolutely fundamental to Greek views of citizenship, honor, and virtue. It was prevalent during the first century, and examples quickly came to mind whenever a person of repute was condemned for his views by a government that found him inconvenient and sought to put him aside.

    The shift from warrior to teacher enhanced the significance of the noble death by turning the person who died nobly into a martyr for a cause. The standard for assessing the virtue of such a death was a person's integrity (with respect to the teaching or cause for which one was willing to die) and endurance (or loyalty to the cause, even unto death). And so it was that martyrdom came to represent the ultimate test of virtue, and obedience unto death the ultimate display of one's strength of character. As for the cause, it also was ennobled by having engendered such integrity. Stoics, Cynics, and other schools of popular ethical philosophy claimed and cultivated the image of Socrates and other martyrs who had died for the truth of a teaching rejected by the politicians of their time. Thus the image of the martyr was available during the Greco-Roman period as a template for assessing the strength or truth of a teaching, school of thought, political philosophy, or an embattled or disenfranchised cause (Seeley 1990).

    Within Jewish circles the concept of martyrdom took yet another turn. Drawing upon the older image of the warrior who died for his country and the significance of


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    Romans 3:21-26

    This text from Paul's letter to the Romans puts us in touch with a very early period in the development of the Christ myth. It documents a stage in the thinking of the first Christians that predates the refined formulations of the kerygma. The death of Jesus was in view, and its significance as a martyrdom had been worked out without any need to imagine a resurrection. Paul found the formulation of these ideas much to his liking, and he all but erased the original saying in the way in which he cited it. Fortunately, scholars have been able to reconstruct the gist of the pre-Pauline fragment.


    I cite the reconstruction worked out in a detailed study by Sam Williams (1975). The parentheses are his; I have added the material in brackets for clarity:

    In times past God overlooked the sins of the gentiles.
        But now God has regarded Jesus' death as a means of expiation because of
            his faith(fulness).
    He [God] did this to show his righteousness,
        and to justify (or make righteous) the one whose faith[fulness] stems from
            Jesus' own faith(fulness).

    Four ideas converge in this interpretation of Jesus' death. The first is that God took note of the problem facing the new community, namely that the inclusion of gentiles had to be justified. The second is that God worked it out by regarding Jesus' death as an expiation for their sins. The third is that the effectiveness of Jesus' death was due to his faith(fulness). And the fourth is that one who learns to be faithful on the model of Jesus' faithfulness is justified in the sight of God.

    The logic of this mythology is extremely interesting. It is based on a martyrology, for Jesus is said to have been "faithful," and the word for that is pistis, a term that occurs in the stories of the martyrs to express their essential virtue. It means something like "committed," and, along with the term endurance, refers to the martyr's steadfastness even in the face of death. The cause to which Jesus was faithful is not expressed, but it is possible that the early Christians started down this line of thought by imagining Jesus to have been loyal to his own teachings and/or vision of the kingdom of God. That would have been an easy step to take, imagining the manner of death befitting a founder figure whose integrity was unquestioned. If so, we can see how the transition from a Jesus movement to the Christ myth may have been accomplished. In any case, this early martyrology is about Jesus, not the Christ. The factor that turned his martyrdom into an event that justified the new community, and so allowed the thought that the new community was the cause for which he had died, was derived not from Jesus' own intentions, but from the way in which God was understood to have viewed the event. Being sure of that must have taken some long and hard thinking. But the important words were there to work it out.

    The terms settled upon for justifying the inclusion of gentiles in a movement that thought of itself on the model of Israel, the people of God, were sins and righteousness. As we have seen, sinners was a generic designation for any and all who did not live according to Jewish standards of piety. Those who did were called the righteous. Thus the terms worked as a pair and could distinguish Jew from gentile with respect to acceptance or nonacceptance of Jewish laws as the standard for righteousness. As such, the terms were completely appropriate to the situation of a group troubled about its mixed constituency. All we need to do is see that the words for righteous, righteousness, and justify (acquit as righteous), the terms that are


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    Another important window into the congregations of the Christ is the picture Paul paints of the community at meal in 1 Corinthians 11. The text is familiar to Christians for, along with the story of Jesus' last supper with his disciples in the synoptic gospels, it provides the script for the Christian celebration of the Eucharist, or Mass. In the Christian imagination, the Pauline text is based upon a memory of the last supper at which Jesus anticipated his sacrificial death by giving the bread and wine symbolic meanings and instructed his disciples to continue the practice as his proper memorial (the so-called words of institution). A close look suggests another interpretation, one that fits better in the setting of the Christ cult than that of the imagined time of Jesus with his disciples.


    I Corinthians 11:23-25

    This is another text that Paul called a "tradition" he had "received" and passed on to the Corinthians at some earlier time. The tradition reads as follows:

    that the Lord Jesus on the night he was handed over took bread,
        and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said,
            "This is my body which is for you.
            Do this in remembrance of me."
        In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
            "This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
            Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."

    Astonishment may well be the first response of any modern reader of this text. Even after coming to terms with the grisly imagery and tortured logic of the Christ myth, one is hardly prepared for this shocking portrayal of Jesus calmly announcing his imminent immolation. And New Testament scholars have not been much help in making sense of it. Part of the problem is that the history of Christian liturgy and iconography has overloaded the scene with pious depictions of a totally divine persona representing absolute serenity at the thought of sacrificing himself to save the world from perdition. That image tends to frustrate critical analysis. But another part of the problem is that the dominant scenario for Christian origins automatically places this scene in the narrative context of the gospels and treats it as historical. If one does that, the task of analysis will be to imagine how it could have happened, how it could possibly fit with what we know of the historical Jesus, how his followers could have understood it, and what Jesus could have meant by it. This set of questions, arising from the assumption that it must have happened, has led nowhere. So the first thing to notice about the scene depicted in this text is that it does not make sense as history. The scene assumes that the death of "the Lord Jesus" was a martyrdom and, as we now know, that thought was an interpretation specific to the Christ cult. The scene is not historical but imaginary. It was a creation of the congregations of the Christ in keeping with their mythology. The reasons for the mythology are clear. What we now need to understand are the reasons for imagining the icon of Jesus at the table.

    The place to begin is with the observation that the icon depicts a meal. Since early Christians gathered for meals, and since Paul used this supper text to say some things about the way in which the Corinthians were behaving when they gathered for meals, the suspicion would be that the Jesus icon might have something to do with early Christian meal practice. Note that the words of Jesus are spoken over the breaking of bread and the drinking of a cup of wine. Bread and wine were shorthand for food and drink, the two natural symbols that everyone used when referring to common meals. And note, also, that the text separates the moments of recognition by placing the word about the bread at the beginning of the meal, and the word


    about the wine "after supper." This means that the icon had its setting in normal meal practice and would have been recognized as such.

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    Christ hymn is a name that modern scholars have given to a genre of praise poetry that apparently was quite popular in early Christian circles. There are several examples in the New Testament (Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20; Eph. 2:14-16; 1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Pet. 3:18-22; Heb. 1:3; and John 1:1-18) and many more from later Christian literature, including rather large collections such as the Odes of Solomon. The earliest example is the poem in Philippians 2:6-11, another pre-Pauline fragment:

    Although he was in the form of God
       he did not think equality with God was anything worth grasping,
    But emptied himself and took the form of a slave,
       born in the likeness of humankind.
    And when he appeared on earth as a man
       he humbled himself and was obedient to the point of death.

    Therefore God exalted him on high
       and gave him the name above every other name,


    That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
       in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    And every tongue should confess that
       "Jesus Christ is Lord," to the glory of God the Father.
    The hymn contains two stanzas, each having three double lines. The stanzas balance one another in a pattern of composition called a chiasm (from the Greek letter chi, X). The chiasm was an outline whereby a progression of thought narrowed, took a turn, then opened up again, retracing the pattern in reverse order to end with a line that matched the first line of the first stanza. In this case the first stanza describes three stages in the "descent" (or "humiliation") of a person "in the form of God," whereas the second stanza describes three stages in his "exaltation" (or "ascent"). The pattern reminds one of the Christ kerygma with its shift from death to resurrection, but the focus here in the Christ hymn is no longer on a martyrdom. To be sure, the line about being "obedient to the point of death" shows that the Christ myth was in the background and still in mind. But reflection upon the death as a crucifixion and the resurrection as a vindication of the martyr is no longer the primary interest. (Some scholars have thought so because of the phrase "even death on a cross" in verse 8, but most agree that it was Paul who added that line.) According to the Christ myth, Jesus became the Christ by virtue of his obedience unto death. Here, in the Christ hymn, Jesus is the incarnation of a divine figure who possessed "equality with God" already at the very beginning of the drama and had every opportunity to be lord simply by "taking" possession of his kingdom. His glory, however, is that he did not "grasp" that opportunity (or take advantage of it for himself) but took the form of an obedient slave. Because of this, God exalted him to an even higher lordship, one that was higher than any other imaginable. This new myth with the descent/ascent pattern all but erased the kerygma. Instead of a martyrology, the early Christians now had a myth of cosmic destiny on their hands. Thus the poem is not really about Christ; it is a hymn about Jesus Christ as lord.

    This is mythmaking on the cosmic scale. Throughout the Greco-Roman world lord meant sovereign. One needed only to know the name of the lord in question in order to locate his or her domain. The God of Israel was the lord for Jews. Serapis was the lord of his mystery cult. Other gods were lords of their people. Egyptian kings and queens ruled as lords by virtue of their divinity. And the Roman emperors, unable to withstand the seductive notion of being regarded and treated as gods, were also encouraging obeisance and allowing themselves to be addressed as lords. The poem says that Jesus Christ is the name of the lord that is above every other lord. That is an absolutely stupendous claim. Just the thought is mind-boggling. Think of every knee bowing, every tongue confessing, that the Christians' martyr by the name of Iesous Christos was lord of all, and that if such homage should actually happen throughout the cosmos, including the heavens and the underworld, God the Father would be pleased to receive the glory for it. What a picture!


    The audacity of this poem is only partially due to the exaggerations of its imagery. In the cultural turmoil of the Greco-Roman age even the gods had to compete, and in order to outrank other deities extravagant claims had to be made. Isis, for example, claimed to be the "lord of every land," and her devotees claimed that Isis was the "true name" of every female deity with whom she had been identified in all of these lands (Grant 1953, 128-33). So the Christ hymn does not contain thoughts that others would have found strange or outlandish per se, if they were claims made in the name of a known god. The audacity, rather, was to think of Jesus as such a god in the first place. To make such claims for Jesus the martyr would certainly have turned some heads. So we need to ask what caused the thought that Jesus had been or was a god.

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    Copyright © 1995 by HarperCollins -- All rights reserved.
    Only limited, "fair use" excerpts reproduced here.

    [ 97 ]

    PART 2          

    Christ and the Hinge of History          





    PAUL AND      
    HIS GOSPEL      

    After Jesus, a single personality dominates the traditional picture of the way Christianity began. This person, an intellectual Jew named Paul, looms so large in the pages of the New Testament that what he called his gospel has served for the Christian church as the definition of the new religion. Unfortunately, many scholars also continue to imagine Christian origins in keeping with Paul's views. The reasons for this impression are obvious. His (partially pseudonymous) authorship accounts for over one-half the books in the New Testament. His letters from the 50s are the earliest Christian writings for which we have manuscript documentation. These are the only texts from the first century that scholars consider authentic, which means that they were actually written or signed by the author whose name was attached to them. All the many other writings and text fragments from the first century were either written anonymously or lost to the vicissitudes of history. From Paul's letters, moreover, the first autobiographical sketch of the life and thought of a real live Christian emerges. So Paul has counted as the first convert to Christianity, the first Christian who did not know Jesus "after the flesh," as he said, and thus the first witness to the faith that must have started with Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

    There are two problems with this view. One is that Paul's conception of Christianity is not evident among the many texts from the early Jesus movements. The other is that Paul's gospel was not comprehensible and persuasive for most people of his time, including many other Christians, as we shall see. For historians this means that the traditional picture of Christian origins derived from Paul's letters is suspect and needs to be revised. Instead of reading the material from the Jesus movements through the eyes of Paul, we need to read Paul as a remarkable moment in the history of some Jesus movement. It is the difference between the picture painted by the Jesus movements and the picture painted by Paul that requires explanation. The groundwork for doing that has already been laid in the last chapter. Now we need to revise the traditional understanding of Paul's own conversion, mission, and message.


    Paul was converted to a Jesus movement that had already become a congregation of the Christ. That much is clear from his own account. It was, he said, a "revelation" from God that Jesus Christ was God's son (Gal. 1:12, 15-16). That must refer to the Christ myth, not to any of the views of Jesus from the other Jesus movements. He also said that before he changed his mind about Christians, he "pursued" them as a threat to his own religious convictions (Gal. 1:13). If that is so, we need to understand the reasons for his hostility and subsequent change of mind in order to appreciate his gospel and the reason for its place of privilege in the New Testament.

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    First Thessalonians is the earliest letter we have from Paul, and it is the very first Christian writing for which we have an independent manuscript. From the letter we

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    learn that Paul had spent some time at Philippi before arriving at Thessalonica (I Thess. 2:2), after which he and his co-worker Timothy had gone on to Athens where he had decided to send Timothy back to Thessalonica to encourage the newly formed congregation in their "faith" (1 Thess. 3:1-2). The letter was written later, probably from Corinth in the year 50 C.E., after Timothy's return with the good news that the Thessalonians were indeed keeping the faith (1 Thess. 3:6-7). The letter is important, for it gives us both a sketch of Paul's missionary activity far from home and, by indirect reflection, a glimpse of the people who had been attracted to his gospel. Paul was apparently the founder of this congregation, for he refers to their becoming Christians as a result of his gospel (1 Thess. 1:5-6), and he refers to himself as an apostle of Christ among them (1 Thess. 2:7) who behaved "like a father with his children" (1 Thess. 2:11).

    Thessalonica was a large, prosperous seaport on the main overland trade route from the Adriatic to the Bosporus (Via Egnatia). It was a thoroughly Hellenistic city, founded by Cassander, one of the successors to Alexander the Great, and it had played an important role as a city of power in the politics of the empires that had clashed during the three hundred years of its existence. When Paul arrived, it was the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia, a city where Pompey had made his headquarters during the Roman civil war. Strong and rich, with a worldly-wise air and a mixed population of peoples and cultures, Thessalonica was apparently ready to entertain an itinerant evangelist talking about a new association that had sprouted from the roots of a known and respected ancient religious tradition.

    Paul's letter is priceless evidence that his mission in Macedonia was successful. Were it not for the letter, we would never have imagined that people in Thessalonica would have found Paul's gospel attractive. That they did is evident from the signs of the Christ cult visible in Paul's offhand references to the congregation there. They were "called" into God's kingdom, had "turned" to God from idols, knew themselves to be "chosen," recognized Jesus Christ as lord, "imitated" the lord "in spite of persecution," were inspired by the spirit, regarded one another as brothers and sisters in the new family of God, and received instruction on how to live together in accord with a high standard of morality. Even if we allow for a Pauline perspective and a bit of exaggeration in the rhetoric, it does appear that the Thessalonians had formed a Christian congregation.

    Paul's plan had succeeded. He had turned the Christ myth into a gospel capable of proclamation, and the proclamation had proven capable of winning adherents to form a congregation. It is the formation of the congregation that is telling, and the fact that it saw itself as the family or kingdom of God. The essential attraction must therefore have been similar to that for both the Jesus movements and the Christ congregations to which Paul had been converted, namely the invitation to join with others in the pursuit of a new social arrangement that dramatically expanded the (fictive) family of Israel's Father God. This fits with Paul's sense of mission, the urban setting of Thessalonica, and the presence of a Jewish colony there. And his emphasis throughout the letter on holiness, blamelessness, purity, and the Jewish


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    A second letter to the Thessalonians is not Pauline. It lacks the personal warmth, reminiscences, and references characteristic of the authentic letters of Paul (Schmidt 1990). Almost one-third of it is a verbatim copy from the first letter. The signature is suspicious. And the eschatology reflects a development of Christian apocalyptic thinking of the kind that took place only after the Roman Jewish war around the turn of the first century. I mention it here as the most appropriate place for its discussion, but it adds nothing to our knowledge of Paul's gospel. Its only importance is in documenting the fact that Paul's letters continued to be copied and read after his time in the churches of Greece and Asia Minor and that those who belonged to his school continued to write letters in his name. This phenomenon, called pseudonymous writing, was a common practice and will be thoroughly explored in chapter 8. At this point it is enough to emphasize that, although the author of 2 Thessalonians belonged to the school of Paul, his concept of the eschaton was not Pauline.

    In 1 Thessalonians there is mention of rescue "from the wrath that is coming" (1 Thess. 1:10) and the promise that "God has destined us not for wrath but for... salvation" (1 Thess. 5:9). A contrast between the rescue of some and the destruction of others was standard in many Jewish apocalypses, where the point was always a theodicy in favor of the righteous. Paul's mention of God's wrath must have been derived from this apocalyptic dualism. But Paul did not say with whom God was angry, nor would it have made much sense to the Thessalonians had he been more specific. Wrath was mentioned merely as the other face of God, the one that did not countenance immorality and uncleanness. This view of God's wrath changes dramatically in the second letter to the Thessalonians, where "the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance... on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction...." (2 Thess. 1:7-9). This does not sound like Paul, and it tells us that those who continued to work as preachers and teachers in the Pauline tradition had no trouble attributing new ideas to him. It was written by someone who was willing to name the target of God's wrath and who, contrary to Paul's own caution about timetables (1 Thess. 5:1), was eager to spell out a sequence

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    of events that had to take place before the end finally arrived (2 Thess. 2:1-12). This person was apparently intrigued with Paul's apocalyptic scenario in the first letter to the Thessalonians, perhaps because it was an unusually graphic depiction, and he thought to use Paul's authority to validate his own version of the eschaton.

    Another indication of editorial activity in the Pauline school should be mentioned. It has to do with the addition of some material to the first letter (1 Thess. 2:14-16). The person who made this change was interested in directing Paul's apocalyptic preachments against those who opposed the Christian mission and did so by inserting a small unit aimed specifically at the Jews who "killed Jesus" and "drove us out," for which reason "God's wrath has overtaken them at last." Nothing in all of Paul's letters comes close to such a pronouncement (Pearson 1971). The idea seriously tarnishes the inclusive logic of the Christ myth, and it presupposes the logic of Mark's passion narrative which, as we shall see, runs counter to that of the Christ myth. And since, according to this addition, it was the Jews upon whom God's wrath had (already) fallen, the reference must surely be to the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., an event that Paul did not live to see. So Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, written only as an occasional instruction, picked up layers of interpretation on its way into the New Testament. It was supplemented by the addition of a second letter to form a Thessalonian correspondence, copied many times over, edited as we have just seen, and used to claim Paul's authority for later versions of the Christian view of history and its apocalyptic finale. Looking back, it is doubtful that Paul would have been pleased.


    Paul's letter to the Galatians is much more important to our project than the Thessalonian correspondence. That is because the concerns addressed in the Thessalonian correspondence, though real, were ancillary to the core logic of the Christ myth. In Galatians, however, a situation developed that involved a critical challenge to Paul's gospel at the very center of its basic rationale. Other persons had entered the picture with "another gospel" (Gal. 1:6-7; 4:17) and, like some nightmare for Paul, were saying that the Galatian Christians would have to be circumcised (Gal. 5:2-12; 6:13). "Damn them," Paul wrote, "damn them" (Gal. 1:8-9). "I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!" (Gal. 5:12). It is clear that a central Pauline nerve had been pinched.

    We can't be sure exactly where this happened. The letter is addressed to a number of churches in Galatia, the Roman province in central Asia Minor (Gal. 1:2), a region in which Paul must have been active before reaching Philippi and Thessalonica, though the only record we have of that is Luke's later account in Acts. Exactly when he was there, whether on the journey that took him to Macedonia or earlier, how he discovered the situation that developed subsequently, and from where he wrote the letter are all matters of uncertainty. However, many scholars


    have concluded that the letter was written from Ephesus sometime between 52 and 54 C.E., shortly before Paul's Corinthian correspondence, also written from Ephesus. One thing is obvious from the letter, namely that Paul was well acquainted with the church or churches he addressed, for he felt no need to begin with the usual thanksgiving and commendation. He got down to business immediately, repeatedly alluded to specific aspects of the persons and views that had enraged him, and even dared to charge the Galatians with folly: "You foolish Galatians," he said, "who has bewitched you?" (Gal. 3:1).

    Who were these "bewitchers"? They have often been called "Judaizers," a term that scholars have used to refer to Jewish Christian missionaries who followed in Paul's footsteps to counter his gentile mission of freedom from the law. There is very little evidence for such a movement, although part of Paul's argument does seem to implicate some connection with the Jesus people in Jerusalem. He mentions both "false brothers" at Jerusalem (Gal. 2:4) and "people from James" in Antioch (Gal. 2:12), both of whom insisted on the keeping of Jewish purity codes. But we need not think of a movement in general that was propagating such a view, much less one that was organized to hound Paul in particular. The question of what to do with gentile proselytes was, as we have seen, a burning issue throughout the Jewish diaspora, including Asia Minor. And wherever a Christian congregation formed in proximity to a diaspora synagogue, the question would have been raised by Jews and new Christians alike. It was to Paul's own advantage to insinuate that those who held such views had, in every case, infiltrated Christian circles from outside. The important observation is that in Galatia the issue had been raised after Paul had moved on. And at least some of the Galatians had apparently been persuaded that Christians should keep the Jewish laws.

    This does not mean that Galatian gentiles were overjoyed at the prospect of being circumcised. Circumcision was the price they would have to pay for the benefits of full membership in the Jewish community. But that was Paul's point. If that's what they wanted, there was no need to be Christian (Gal. 5:2-4). So the issue was not just about circumcision but about really becoming a Jew in order to enjoy the benefits of belonging to the people of Israel. There is mention of the Galatians wanting to keep the law (Gal. 3:2; 4:21), their observance of special days, months, and years (a reference to the cycle of Jewish feasts and festivals; Gal. 4:10), and even the working of miracles (presumably by means of the power and protection granted by the Jewish God; Gal. 3:5). Thus the situation was serious. It is the first indication we have that gentile Christians, not Jews, questioned the credibility of Paul's gospel of freedom from the law. No wonder he was furious.

    Paul developed two arguments in response to this issue. The first was that he had successfully defended his gospel in debate with James and Peter, the leaders of the Jesus people at Jerusalem. We have already noted the importance of this account for reconstructing Paul's conversion. The point he made of it in relation to the Galatian issue was that both his authority as an "apostle" and the content of his "gospel for

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    thee uncircumcised" had been accepted even by the "pillars" in Jerusalem. We have to imagine that the Galatians already knew something about the Jesus people at Jerusalem and that the point of Paul's argument would have been understood, whether they accepted it or not.

    The second argument was much more complex. And it is of enormous interest for our project, for it tackled the Galatian challenge to Paul's gospel straightforwardly, and it forced Paul to attempt a major revision of the Israel epic. If gentiles slid not need to become Jews and live like Jews, so the question can be phrased, how in the world could they claim to be Jews? Paul's strategy was to go back to the stories of Abraham where the beginning of Israel's promise and election were lodged. If Christians could not claim to be Jews, perhaps they could claim to be "children of Abraham." The thought was ingenious. If Paul could pull it off, he would have redefined the constitution of Israel and found a way to anchor the once upon a time of the Christ myth both in recent human history and in the epic of Israel. Paul's letter to the Galatians is actually a lengthy, passionate, and convoluted argument in support of that claim. It is the earliest recorded revision of Israel's history that tries to align the Christ myth with that history. It is the first systematic argumentation that the covenants foundational to Israel were set in anticipation of the coming of the Christ. It is the first elaboration of the Christ myth's logic that gentiles could belong to the people called Israel. And it documents the first serious effort to research the Hebrew scriptures as the way to support such a claim.

    Briefly, Paul started with Abraham as the acknowledged patriarch of Israel, and among the stories of Abraham he found repeated mention of a promise God made to him that "his seed," or children, would be without number and that "all the nations would be blessed in him" (Gen. 12:1-3, 7; 15:5-7; 17:1-8; 18:17-19; 22:17-18). Never mind that the obvious reference here was to physical lineage. Never mind that the promise was made to Abraham and his children, while the blessing was for the nations. Notice, Paul said, that the blessing was promised because of Abraham's faith and righteousness, for "Abraham believed God," it says, "and it was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6; Gal. 3:6-9, emphasis added). What happened, Paul asked, to the promise and the blessing? The promise to Abraham occurred 430 years prior to the revelation of the Mosaic law (Gal. 3:17). That means that the law was "added" to the promise, Paul said. Why? Because of transgressions (Gal. 3:19). The law, he said, could not make anyone righteous; it was a curse to those who relied upon it and served only as a guardian "until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made" (Gal. 3:10-24). And who do you suppose that was? Since the law could not abrogate the promise, he concluded, the promise to Abraham must have been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ who, like Abraham, was "faithful" and "righteous," and because of whom God had regarded the nations (gentiles) as "faithful" and "righteous" as well.

    As one can see, subjects, objects, antecedents, and the plain sense of the passages in Genesis were all violated in order to put the construction upon them that Paul


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    Copyright © 1995 by HarperCollins -- All rights reserved.

    [ 123 ]


    PAUL'S  LETTERS  TO      

    We have learned three things about Paul and his gospel from his letters to the Thessalonians and Galatians. The first is that he understood the logic at the heart of the Christ myth, a mythology aimed at justifying a mixed congregation of Jews and gentiles as the children of the God of Israel. The second is that, as he worked out the implications of that myth for his own mission to the gentiles, Paul's Jewish mentality determined every new construction he put upon it. This included such moves as appealing to the Abraham legends, arguing from the Jewish scriptures, imposing Jewish ethics, and creating apocalyptic scenarios in order to spell out the significance he saw in the kerygma at the bedrock of his gospel. And the third thing we have learned is that Paul's gospel was his very own construction. It was not the way that others in the Jesus movements or the congregations of the Christ understood the import of Jesus and God's plan for a kingdom.

    And so, while Paul was preaching his gospel and trying to keep his congregations in line, the Jesus Christ movement was attracting adherents on its own initiative without much concern for the problem Jewish intellectuals were having with their law. And once the Christ myth was in place, in support of a novel social vision, Christian congregations found themselves with a most interesting myth on their hands. Social experimentation exploded, and the Christ myth spiraled out of control. It did not take long for those familiar with Greek mythology and Hellenistic mystery cults to catch the spirit of the resurrected Christ. And it did not take long for people with some knowledge of Greek psychology to translate the Christ myth into a symbol of personal transformation via contact with the spirit of Christ. If spirit (pneuma) was the all-pervasive element that gave the cosmos its structure and soul, as well as the primal principle that generated the spark of divinity in humans, and if the spirit of Christ was available to those who joined a congregation of the Christ, the sky was the limit as far as personal Christian experience was concerned. At Corinth, for instance, the Christian congregation became a place for a most amazing display of extravagant


    spiritual behavior, including ecstatic utterance, sexual license, mystical experience, poetic gifts, ritual power, and baptisms for the dead.

    Paul was not prepared for such a display of personal spiritual aggrandizement. It made him nervous. It threatened both his Jewish sense of community and his Christian vision of the kingdom of God. He had to counter this trend, and in the shift of focus that occurred, from the gentile mission to the governance of the Christian congregation, Paul gave the Christ myth yet another twist. The Christ myth does set the pattern for Christian experience, he said. But notice that the crucifixion precedes the resurrection, and that, while the Christian may experience the "deaths" of past commitments, identities, practices, and desires, being "resurrected" to eternal life must wait until the eschaton. In the meantime, the cross of Christ should set the pattern for humility and service to one another in the interest of "building up" the congregation. And by the way, at the eschaton there would be a judgment to see whether everyone had lived in accord with this new ethic of service to the Christian community.

    The Christ myth was not born of considerations such as these, nor did its elaboration demand them. It was Paul who focused attention on "the cross" (1 Cor. 1:18) instead of the resurrection and who added an apocalyptic framework to the mythology of Jesus Christ as lord. He did this to counter a fascination with the mythology of the resurrection he thought dangerous. It was a fascination many early Christians found irresistible. If one thought of the myth as a pattern to be imitated, it suggested an offer of spiritual transformation and transcendence. Paul thought such a cultivation of the Christ myth gave rise to personal religious experiences that ranked and divided the community by allowing some individuals to claim superior spiritual status. Paul had to be careful, of course. He had argued for apostolic authority on the basis of his own personal call. But that was a call, not an experience of the resurrected Christ. What if he put the two together, his call experience and the Corinthians' claim to experience the risen lord? Then he could argue that his call was an experience of seeing the risen lord, and that their experience should also be understood as a call to serve the Christian mission. And what was the Christian mission but the formation of Christian congregations? He did it, and it seemed to work.

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    At Corinth, Paul's gospel of freedom from the law and new life by means of the spirit of Christ spun out of control. Corinth was a lively new city, Greek to the core and thoroughly Hellenistic in spirit, although Roman in recent design. Its long and illustrious history as a prominent, independent, and smart Greek city, the city that watched over the crossing between Achaea and the Peloponnese, had come to an end at the hands of the Romans in 146 B.C.E. During the next one hundred years the Romans realized their role as a colonial power, and Julius Caesar rebuilt Corinth as a Roman colony in 44 B.C.E. It flourished, and in 27 B.C.E. Caesar, now Augustus, designated Corinth as the capital city of the Roman province of Greece. Corinth was hardly a match for Athens as a center for the continued cultivation of classical Greek philosophy and learning, but it was the city where Greek thought and culture poured into the mixing bowl of peoples and ideas that had been thrown together during the Greco-Roman age. It was a busy seaport and a center for commerce, industry, and the Isthmian games. There were temples and sanctuaries for Apollo, Aphrodite, Asclepius, Poseidon, and Demeter, as well as for Isis, Serapis, and the Asian Mother of the gods. Sailors, merchants, philosophers, and travelers passed through. Roman government officials, craftsmen, merchants, and performers contributed to a bright and bustling public life. And prostitutes brought Corinth fame as the city of sex, pleasure, and immorality. The temple of Aphrodite Pandemos


    ("Goddess of love for all the people") overlooked the city from a massive acropolis and blessed the intercourse below.

    Paul was hardly prepared for Corinth. He did receive an eager hearing for his gospel there, apparently, and he did find himself deeply involved in the life of this new congregation, returning to it again and again in person, spirit, and by letter, as he said, long after he had moved on to Ephesus and other places to continue his gentile mission. But Paul was not the only teacher to which these Christians were listening, and it is clear that his views on the meaning of the "cross of Christ" and the "law of Christ" were difficult for the Corinthians to accept and understand. They were impressed rather with the chance to experience the spirit of the new god called Christ and to manifest the spiritual signs that proved they had entered his kingdom. The way the Corinthian Christians displayed these signs of spiritual power produced a remarkable congregational behavior. Nothing we know about the Jesus movements or the congregations of the Christ prior to Paul's Corinthian correspondence, as fanciful as some of these other movements and mythologies were, is enough to explain what happened in Corinth. What the Corinthians did with the Christ myth therefore comes as a great surprise. Paul himself hardly knew what to make of it. The Corinthians saw the Christ myth as an invitation to experience the spirit of that spiritual realm over which Christ ruled, and they took delight in various forms of public display aimed at demonstrating their immediate contact with that spirit. Paul was alarmed. It was certainly not the kind of congregation he had in mind. We can see him backpedaling on freedom, changing his mind about the spirit, and being forced to take positions that seem to contradict his earlier views. Obviously, the problem Paul faced in Corinth was due to the fact that these Corinthians were thoroughly at home in the Hellenistic environment of Greek life and thought. Their reasons for being interested in the Christ myth were not the same as Paul's.

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    Paul's letter to the Romans is a theological essay, quite different in content and style from his letters to other Christian congregations. One reason for the difference is that the occasion for writing this letter was not the same as with the others. The other letters were written to Christian communities where Paul had been active, and several of them had been written in response to questions that had arisen after Paul's departure. Most scholars agree that Paul intended to visit Rome, as he said, and that he wrote the letter to the Christian congregation there in preparation for his visit (Rom. 1:7, 15; 15:23-24, 28-29, 32). But he had not yet been to Rome, had not founded the congregation there, and thus was not personally acquainted with it.


    Another reason for the difference in style and content is that, based on his remarks in chapter 15 about finishing his work in Asia Minor and Greece and preparing to take the offering he had raised there to the saints in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:19-26), Paul was at a point in his career where setting forth a summary of his views would have been an understandable desire. In any case, the Romans essay is the most mature statement we have of Paul's religious ideas, and it must have been written with all his co-workers and congregations in mind, not just the Christians in Rome.

    The letter is actually a comprehensive elaboration of Paul's gospel and thus the earliest systematic treatise we have of a rationale for Christian myth and ritual. Systematic theologians have often regarded it as the most important text in the New Testament, and it has played a profoundly influential role in the history of Christian thought from Augustine at the turn of the fifth century, through Martin Luther and the reformers in the sixteenth century, to Karl Barth and other Protestant theologians of the twentieth century. We need to remind ourselves that later theologians interpreted Paul's letter in the light of later Christian thought. What we now want to understand is Paul's own theology. And since the letter was not addressed to a specific congregational situation, the only background we have against which to highlight its conceptual achievements is the earlier work, views, and letters of Paul.

    From the letter it is clear that Paul's purpose was to make the case for his gospel to the gentiles, and that he had gentile ears in mind no matter where they happened to reside. Romans is thus a programmatic essay of the type the Greeks would have called a protreptic, or reasoned argumentation for a particular philosophical position. The rhetorical style of the letter bears this out, for it moves through a set of theses elaborated according to Greek rules of argumentation, and it sets up straw men as opponents, which was customary practice in Greek schools of rhetoric and philosophy (Stowers 1981). This means that Romans gives us a marvelous opportunity to see Paul at work on the logic and significance of his gospel project as a philosophical or theological enterprise. The familiar Pauline building blocks are all present: the promise to Abraham; God's plan to include gentiles among his children; the argument against circumcision; the proclamation of the Christ myth; the contrast between living under the law and living by faith; the spirit of life; the body of Christ; the ethic of holiness; and the day of judgment. In each case, however, a change in nuance has taken place when compared with earlier letters. These conceptual refinements give an entirely new tenor to Paul's emerging system of thought. Some are changes in terminology, emphasis, or the interpretation of the significance of some feature of his gospel. Other shifts in Paul's thinking can be detected in the softening of sharp edges characteristic of earlier polemics. All of these turns are related to a single factor, namely Paul's desire to make his gospel understandable to gentiles. That was not an easy task, given the decidedly Jewish mentality in the core logic of the Christ myth. After all, the claim to know what the God of Israel intended for the world of Jews and gentiles lay at the heart of the whole intellectual enterprise. So spelling out his gospel plan of salvation for Greek ears to hear may


    not have impressed Greek philosophers uninterested in Jewish theological questions. But for gentile Christians who had been attracted to the congregations of the Christ for other reasons, Paul's attempt to translate the logic of the Christ myth into recognizable philosophical concepts may have given them something to think about. At least Paul had to hope so.

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    A runaway slave, Onesimus, joined Paul's company in Ephesus and became a Christian. What was Paul to do? He was personally acquainted with the slave's master, Philemon, also a Christian and apparently the host of a house-church in Colossae where Paul had been active (Philem. 1-2; cf. Col. 4:9). "In Christ" there was no longer slave and free (Gal. 3:28), but only "brothers and sisters" in the new family of God's children. In the Roman world, however, the institution of slavery was not in question, and the laws that governed the treatment of slaves were clear. Paul was in danger of abetting a runaway, and that meant full legal and financial responsibility for damages due to the owner for the loss of his slave. So Paul was faced with a serious dilemma. The question was not only what to do, but how to live in the Roman world as a Christian. What real difference did it make for a slave to join the fictive family of God? Paul the apostle and Paul the citizen were at odds, as were the kingdom of God and the Roman Empire, when faced with Onesimus. Paul's response was both practical and sage. In the last analysis, social relations in the new Christian community were a matter of attitude and regard, not a rejection


    of the social institutions and codes that governed life in the real world. So Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter, asking Philemon to receive him without punishment as a "brother" and as Paul's own "child." Paul told him that Onesimus had been of service to him in his imprisonment (onesimos means useful), and for that reason Paul was thankfully indebted to Philemon even as Philemon was now indebted to Paul. Paul hoped that Philemon would welcome Onesimus even as he would welcome Paul.

    This letter is an extremely valuable document. It spotlights an actual situation in which Christians had to confront the gap between the kingdom of God as a mythic ideal and Roman society as the real world in which they lived. After spending so much time in the fantastic worlds of Paul's lively imagination, seeing him struggle with practical considerations comes as a great relief. Here we learn that he fully understood the place Christians occupied as a religious association or a philosophical school within a larger, working society. He somehow understood what we would call the social function of myth. As with myths in general, the Christian myth was a projection onto the cosmic screen whose purpose was to imagine ideals, canvass desires, and create a space for reflecting upon the actual state of affairs. When confronted with this concrete case, however, Paul did not use the notion of the one body of Christ to question the institution of slavery. As he would put it in his correspondence to the Philippians, also written from prison at about the same time, Christians should be "blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world," because "our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil. 2:15; 3:20). There is no indication that the Christ cult developed a social program aimed at calling the institutions of the Greco-Roman world into question. Paul's letter to Philemon shows only that the Christ cult fostered a certain circumspection with respect to the Roman world and that it could encourage critical thinking about social relations with the Christian ideal in mind.


    Paul's letter to the Philippians is the icing on the Pauline cake. Paul is off guard. Preachments, polemics, and defensiveness are at a minimum. An especially close and friendly relationship with the Christian congregation at Philippi sets a tone of intimacy. Paul writes freely about his desires, joys, and sorrows. It is the closest we can get to an inside view of Paul's personal experience of the Christ.

    The letter is actually composed of three letter fragments, accidentally saved as it appears and crudely joined together at some later time by those who collected the letters of Paul in the name of the Pauline school (Phil. 4:10-20; 1:1-3:1; 3:2-4:9). The first two seem to have been written from Ephesus around the time of Paul's imprisonment there (ca. 54-55 C.E.), or five to eight years after Paul first established the congregation in Philippi. Epaphroditus had arrived with gifts from Philippi for


    Paul's support, and Paul looked back on earlier occasions when the Philippians had sent their gifts to him (Phil. 4:15-18). Epaphroditus stayed with Paul for a while and suffered an illness before Paul sent him back to Philippi with Timothy, bearing a letter of thanks (Phil. 2:19-30). The third letter fragment is more difficult to place (Phil. 3:2-4:9). The address is missing and there is no express mention of the Philippian congregation. The situation addressed is also difficult to place, for Paul writes against persons who were pestering the congregation with the need to be circumcised and perhaps with extravagant views about spiritual perfection. It is possible that this third letter fragment was not originally addressed to Philippi at all but inserted between the other two letter fragments because of the personal tone. In any case, the Philippian correspondence is marked by unguarded statements about Paul's personal feelings.

    What strikes the reader most is the contrast between the way Paul refers to the Christ myth and the way he writes about himself. The Christ myth is referred to matter-of-factly; Paul's own involvement with it is passionate. What we see is the extent to which Paul the apostle and preacher convinced Paul the person of the reality of the imaginary world he had constructed. The Christ myth fills the horizon even as he writes about himself, his imprisonment, his concern for the well-being of the Philippians, his conversion, his manner of life, and his desire to reach the goal at the end of his life, namely to "attain the resurrection from the dead," "the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:11, 14). What a remarkable attestation of personal conviction in the objective reality of his gospel! It is also a remarkable self-disclosure for a Jewish Christian at the end of a twenty-year mission under the banner of a collective, corporate, social vision. Paul the person wanted to be saved! "I want," he said, "to know Christ and the power of his resurrection...; not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but... I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call..." (Phil. 3:10-14). Paul actually wanted to experience personally the power of Christ's resurrection, an event of transformation that he had proclaimed as a unique occurrence in the case of Christ and as an eschatological drama in the case of the collective destiny of Christians. How could Paul have become so enrapt in the thought of personally stepping into the mythic world of Christ's death and resurrection, "sharing his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:10-11)?

    The answer is that Paul's intellectual efforts to accommodate both Greek and Jewish ways of thinking in the interest of his gospel had affected both his imagination of the Christ myth and his own relation to it. He had been a missionary and broker of cultural merger since his conversion, a call to be an apostle to the gentiles, inviting them into the kingdom of Israel's God. But as the mission advanced, Paul's lofty vision of a single family of God for both Jews and gentiles had to be defended against those who championed conflicting values on both cultural fronts. Caught in the middle, Paul worked out his own definitions of the gospel by drawing upon each


    cultural tradition even as he drew the line against what he considered views an,~ practices that endangered the balance of cultures basic to the vision. In the course this mythmaking, the figure of the Christ became a dense, symbolic repository o two cultural mentalities and their patterns of thought. As we have seen, the Christ was overlaid with mythic and anthropological concepts from both the Semitic and the Hellenistic worlds. In Paul's mind, the Christ was now a historic person, now the son of God, a "corporate personality" representing a collective humanity, a cosmic king, a spiritual power pervading the cosmos, the hidden meaning behind the significant events of Israel's history, and the incarnation of the very mind, promise, and intention of God for humankind. That is an extremely dense symbol. A Jewish penchant for personified abstractions and divine agency merged with a Greek predilection for conceptual abstractions and cosmic order. The Christ had become an overwhelming, all-encompassing symbol of the agency of a Jewish God in a Greek world.

    We need to add only one other ingredient to the picture in order to understand Paul's desire. It is the Greek notion of mimesis, or "imitation." Paul's discourse in Philippians turns on the desire for mimesis. He set forth the Christ hymn as a pattern to be imitated (Phil. 2:6-11). He described his own pattern of life as an example, be imitated (Phil. 3:7-17). He wanted the Philippians to imitate the "mind... that was in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5). He wanted the Philippians to imitate his example (Phil. 3:17). And he himself wanted to "become like" Christ in his death and resurrection (Phil. 3:10-21). The concept of mimesis, to copy a pattern or an example, strikes deeply into the Greek tradition of philosophy, education, and ethical teaching (Castelli 1992). The English terms imitation and copy do not get at the significance of the concept. Pattern expressed structure, character, and the very being of things. To imitate the pattern of an example meant to become like it, to share its character and being. What had happened to the Christ symbol in the cultural merger was that a representative human figure had been deified as a cosmic spirit. And the Christ myth was the story of its transformation from the one to the other. The combination was apparently overpowering. Paul continued to resist the Corinthian temptation of claiming to experience the spirit of the resurrection before the eschaton. But he could not withstand the thought of becoming so like Christ in his death that he would personally experience the power of his resurrection. The question was, when would that resurrection happen? A close reading shows that Paul cleverly avoided the problem this created for his customary reservation of "the" resurrection for the final, collective apocalyptic drama. But the euphemism of "straining forward to what lies ahead... [to] press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" belies the seduction of anticipating a personal resurrection in the near future. Paul would not be the only Christian unable to resist such a desire, as we shall see. Personal salvation as spiritual transformation, offered by imitating the Christ of the cosmos, would become the hallmark of a major stream of Christianity.

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    [ 147 ]


    GOSPELS  OF  JESUS      
    THE  CHRIST      

    War broke out in Palestine in the year 66 C.E. A ridiculous Roman procurator, Gessius Florus, was not able to control street fighting in Caesarea between Jews and Greeks over a property dispute next to the synagogue, or a public demonstration in Jerusalem to mock his pilfering of temple treasury funds. Two little sparks are all these were, but they landed in a tinderbox, and Florus left Jerusalem in retreat to Caesarea.

    The political mood of Jews throughout the empire had been growing tense since the reign of Gaius Caligula, emperor from 37 to 41 C.E. Caligula had offended the Jews by planning to have his image placed in the temple at Jerusalem. Under Claudius (41-54 C.E.) and Nero (54-68 C.E.), who actively intervened in Palestinian politics without much wisdom, the situation worsened. The last Herodian king of Palestine, Agrippa I, who was knowledgeable enough about Jewish affairs to keep the peace in Judea, died in 44 C.E. A famine in 46 C.E., deteriorating economic conditions, a series of seven Roman procurators who were inept and hated, aristocratic family intrigues in Jerusalem, collaborations with the Romans, unpopular political appointments to the high priesthood, internal Jewish religious party strife, the emergence of several resistance groups, and a series of ruthless executions by the Romans set the stage for a popular uprising. No king, the wrong high priest, a compromised aristocracy, and a hated foreign power meant that the traditional structure of Jewish society had all but vanished.

    Leaders of armed guerrilla movements took advantage of Florus' retreat from Jerusalem and vied for control of fortresses in Jerusalem, Judea, Idumea, and Galilee. Attempts to put down the resistance by Gallus, the governor of Syria, and Agrippa II, client king of cities in the north Transjordan, were not successful. In February of 67 C.E., Nero appointed Vespasian as special commander of Roman troops to suppress the Jewish rebellion, and Vespasian started his march toward Jerusalem. His troops easily routed what must have been a pitiful army of defenders in Galilee, quickly organized under Josephus who had been sent there by remnants


    of the temple establishment in Jerusalem. Galilean villages were razed, and fortress at Jotapata, a few miles north of Sepphoris where Josephus and his men h taken refuge, was overrun. Josephus survived the slaughter at Jotapata by deserting to the Romans, and Vespasian moved on to take control of Perea in the Transjordan and western Judea. He might then have taken Jerusalem except for a strategy of containment to let the several warring parties wear each other down. When Ne died in 68 C.E., Vespasian was acclaimed emperor by his troops and returned to Rome. The command of the Jewish war was then transferred to Titus, his son. In the meantime, chaos reigned in Jerusalem.

    In The Jewish War, Josephus describes the confusion in Jerusalem during the temple's last two years (68-70 C.E.). Political factions were at war within the city. Leaders of various groups representing the aristocracy, the high priesthood, an Idumean party, Hasidic movements, and guerrilla bands from the several countrysides, including Galilee, had taken advantage of the confusion following Florus' retreat and converged on Jerusalem in the attempt to take control of the city. The reasons for the long list of intrigues, collaborations, betrayals, and internecine slaughters recounted by Josephus are difficult to follow. But one thing is clear. All factions were driven to desperate measures in the face of the Roman threat and the complete breakdown of social order throughout the land of Palestine. Many residents fled Jerusalem during these years, leaving the city to armed bands who fought each other to gain control of the temple and the citadel. It is also clear that, in addition to the uncontrollable surge of desires to press grievances, right wrongs, and gain political power, the reinstatement of the second temple was in everyone's mind. The office of the high priesthood. was contested, and contenders were slain. Faction leaders assumed the role of the king of the Jews and were killed. At the very end, when Titus invaded Jerusalem, he found only two faction leaders left, a certain John of Gischala who was hiding in a cave and Simon bar Giora, the ruthless leader of the Idumean faction who had come out on top. Titus found Simon standing in the temple clothed in purple robes. He leveled Jerusalem, sentenced John to life imprisonment, and took Simon back to Rome in chains for the traditional triumphal procession. After the procession, Simon was executed as the king of the Jews, Titus was deified, and the story of Rome's conquest of Jerusalem was memorialized on Titus' arch, still standing at the top of the Sacra Via in the ruins of the old Roman forum.

    The Roman Jewish war destroyed more than a city, citadel, and temple. It brought to an end the history of the second temple. Jews of all persuasions had assumed the temple-state to be God's design for Jerusalem. But now the sacrifices ceased. The sacrificial system of priests, scribes, and courts came to its end. The establishment of the priestly aristocracies was gone. Dissenters such as the sect at Qumran no longer had any reason to exist, for they had hoped for an end to the current establishment of tainted priests, not for an end to the temple system itself. Now the temple lay in ruins. The city was desolate. The inhabitants who had not fled were sold into slavery, and the land became a Roman province.


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    Mark's portrayal of Jesus is strikingly different from other, earlier images, whether of the Christ or of Jesus the teacher. His story of Jesus was not a gospel of the Pauline kind, proclaiming an event and interpreting it as a message of justification. His portrait of Jesus was also quite different from those created by small sets of stories about a divine man or an imposing sage as some Jesus people had imagined him. And his portrayal differed from the person behind the voice of a collection of sayings sucks as Q or the Gospel of Thomas. Mark's story was what the Greeks would have called a "life" (bios). It was a biography. Just as the Greeks would have done, Mark took the many little sayings and stories of Jesus that were available to him from earlier traditions and used them to create a new image of Jesus. Then he arranged these stories to develop some themes, such as that of Jesus' power or the plot to have him killed, and he brought the story to focus on a conflict that Jesus and God had with the Jerusalem establishment. As for the story of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, Mark took the basic ideas from the Christ myth but dared to imagine how the crucifixion and resurrection of the Christ might look if played out as a historical event in Jerusalem, something the Christ myth resisted. Thus Mark's story is best understood as a studied combination of Jesus traditions with the Christ myth. The combination enhanced Jesus' importance as a historical figure by casting him as the son of God or the Christ and by working out an elaborate plot to link his fate to the history of Mark's community. We may therefore call Mark's gospel a myth of origin for the Markan community. It was imagined in order to understand how history could have gone the way it had and the Jesus movement still be right about its loyalties and views.

    Catching sight of the Markan community has not been easy. The story is set in the past and filled with people who were no longer present. The lines from Jesus' time to Mark's time are not clearly drawn. The Markan community is not described,


    not directly addressed, and only reflected opaquely in the story as if in a dark reflecting pool whose waters have been troubled. And yet, it is also clear that the story was written for readers who wanted to be sure that their kingdom movement was still alive and well, that they were still in touch with their prewar commitments, and that they still had a glorious future. If we read their story from their point of view, perhaps we can find some clues that will let us sketch a profile of the people whose story this was.

    As for the author, we know only that we do not know who it was. The Mark to whom the gospel was attributed is a legendary figure from the second century. The legend may have started when someone looked for an author for the anonymous gospel among the circles of named apostles and their friends. A Mark had been mentioned by Paul as one of his fellow workers in his letter to Philemon (Philem. 24) and by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. Then, in the first epistle of Peter, a pseudonymous document from the second century, a Mark is mentioned as Peter's son (I Pet. 5:13). Papias, bishop of Hieropolis in Asia Minor (ca. 130), named Mark the author of the gospel and the "interpreter" of Peter, presumably as if Mark had written from Peter's memory and notes as his secretary (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39). These are traces of a developing legend of a kind common for the early second century. We shall explore the reasons for these legends later in chapters 8 and 9. For now it is enough to see that the gospel was not signed by its author. This agrees with what we know about all of the gospels. Writing one was a communal process in which stories were told, polished, changed, and rearranged many times in the course of several generations. Some creative author must have credit for the final composition of each, however, for the signs of literary skill and design are obvious in all of them. I will continue the tradition of referring to Mark as the author of the Gospel of Mark, for there is no other name to use.

    According to Mark, John the Baptizer was preaching about a man of power who was to come and baptize the people with the holy spirit when Jesus showed up to be baptized. The holy spirit descended, the voice of God said that Jesus was his son, and Jesus started out on his mission, preaching the gospel of God's kingdom, healing the sick, and casting out demons. Disciples, crowds, and Jewish leaders watched and reacted as Jesus moved through Galilee, withdrew to Caesarea Philippi at the northern border of the old kingdom of David and Solomon for a little talk with his disciples, then swept down through Galilee, Samaria, and Judea on a march to Jerusalem. There he confronted the religious establishment and was put to death. His death, however, was not the end of the story. That is because Jesus had been destined to come into conflict with the rulers of the world. He was God's son, and God had a controversy with Judaism of spiritual and cosmic proportions. The controversy was about God's kingdom which the scribes, Pharisees, high priests, and Herodians had botched and Jesus had come to set right. When Jesus entered their synagogues and confronted the unclean spirits there, the Jewish leaders decided to get rid of him. The same thing happened when Jesus entered Jerusalem, and then


    the temple. So when they killed him, they mocked him as the "king of the Jews" (Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32); the veil of the temple was mysteriously rent in two "from top to bottom" (Mark 15:38); and the divine response was set in motion just as Jesus had predicted. First there would be a resurrection to vindicate Jesus (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34). Then the temple would be destroyed to vindicate his message and prediction (Mark 13:2; 14:58). And finally, Jesus as the "son of man" would appear to inaugurate the kingdom of God with glory and power as a vindication and realization of God's great plan for the people (Mark 14:62). At the time of Mark's writing, everything predicted had happened on schedule except the final appearance of Jesus as the glorious king of the kingdom of God.

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    behavior, so they looked for stories in the scriptures that they thought might counter the Pharisaic critique. They found stories to embarrass their critics as well as suggest that the behavior of Jesus and his disciples was not much different from that of others throughout Israel's history.

    In contrast to these views, Mark insisted that Jesus and his program displaced earlier forms of being Jewish. Jesus should be aligned with the traditions of Israel, but seen as more than the successor to these traditions. He was instead their replacement, demanding a new orientation that rendered passe all older ways of being Jewish and thinking about Israel. Mark was hardly able to carry through with such a program in a systematic way. But the principle was clearly in mind, and he found some clever ways to make the same point at every turn in the story. He set the pattern at the beginning with the stories of John and Jesus, taken from Q. There it is made clear that Jesus was the successor to John in the line of prophets, but also qualitatively different from him in that God called him his "beloved son." The motif of the prophets being killed, also from Q, was upgraded in Mark and combined with the theme of John and Jesus. John the Baptizer is killed, for instance, as a premonition of Jesus' fate, and then Jesus is killed not only as the last of the line of prophets but also as the son of God. This is made clear in the allegory of the vineyard workers where the point is made that God "will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others" (Mark 12:9). So Jesus' death is qualitatively different from all the deaths of the prophets who went before. And the reason it is different is that Jesus was the son of God.

    After his baptism by John, Jesus steps forth to announce the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God, an arrangement of power destined to confront, destroy, and supersede all Jewish institutions. In the synagogue, Jesus' authority surpasses that of the scribes. When Jesus heals the leper, Mark makes the point that he did what the priests could not do. And then he trumps the Pharisees on the very issue of doing what was lawful on the sabbath. So the scribes, the priests, and the Pharisees, those who represent the social institutions of first-century Judaism, are all overshadowed by Jesus. Who is this who outperforms the professionals in every capacity? Has he any right to best them? Has he any credentials to take their place? At the transfiguration Jesus is seen in the company of Moses and Elijah, the two figures of epic importance who gave the miracle story chains their mythic rationale. But again, as in the comparison with John the Baptizer, Mark lets their aura settle about Jesus, only to brush them aside with a voice from heaven telling the disciples, "This is my Son.... Listen [only] to him" (Mark 9:7). Then, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the crowds welcome him as the messiah, the son of David, and Mark lets the reader think for a moment that maybe the crowds have it right. The reader soon learns, however, that they are mistaken. As Jesus explains while teaching in the temple, the messiah is not David's son, he is David's lord (Mark 12:35-37). It is the same with all the other figures used to characterize Jesus. All are used only as facets of a brand new image. Mark's Jesus combines features of many mythic and ideal figures, and he performs


    the functions of many social roles. The list is truly staggering: child of wisdom, suffering righteous one, prophet, scribe, legislator, teacher, divine man, messiah, son of man, son of God, resurrected lord, final judge, and king of the kingdom of God. Such a figure needs no credentials except the voice of God's approval as his father. And how does the reader know of that approval? The voice is heard as part of the story. If the story holds together and is good enough to enchant its readers, the credentials will have been given. It was Mark's genius to create just such a story. It was Mark's story, in the final analysis, that created the truly incomparable figure of Jesus the Christ and son of God that Christians have always had in mind.

    One final observation about Mark's workshop has to do with his reading of the Jewish scriptures. It occurred to him to turn to the texts of the prophets as a resource for his story about Jesus. He was not the first to think of the prophetic texts in this way, for the authors of Q had already engaged in a bit of playful textual reference to couple the roles of John and Jesus (Q 7:22, 27). But Mark was the first we know of who turned with some seriousness to the books of the prophets to complement the otherwise largely oral and popular motif of the killing of the prophets. It was this motif that allowed the Jesus people to align Jesus with the epic history of Israel without losing the critical edge he had come to represent for them. And as we have seen, Mark's story can actually be viewed as a mythmaking endeavor that worked with the prophet motif as its fundamental point of departure. We can now note that the prophet motif and characterization must have induced an interest in the books of the prophets. Mark combed through these books for images he could apply to Jesus as a prophet, as if the prophets had somehow anticipated Jesus' coming. He actually cited Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Malachi, and Daniel to create or interpret events crucial to the story line, and throughout the story there are numerous turns of phrase that repeat or echo prophetic texts. It is also the case that other scriptural repetitions, especially from the Psalms, are given the force of prophetic fulfillment. So Mark turned the prophet motif into a narrative theme, then used the books of the prophets as a narrative device, in order to link Jesus with the story of Israel as its destined agent of change. This was a way of treating the Jewish scriptures that differed significantly from any earlier revision of the Israel epic, including that of Q, the pronouncement stories, the miracle story chains, and Paul. If Mark's overbold strokes fail to startle us, it is because Christians have become so accustomed to the logic of his story line. Without this story, one would have to say, the emergence of Christianity as we know it would not have happened.


    Matthew's gospel appeared in the late 80s and comes as a complete surprise. The surprise is not due to another fantastic flight of early Christian mythic imagination, additional extravagant claims upon the Israelite legacy, the hostility of its polemics, or its apocalyptic temper. The surprise is that, with that kind of buzz in the air, the


    Matthean community had not been overly excited or impressed with the cosmic destinies of Jesus or the thought that it had become a brand new kind of human race. Its gospel succeeded in reducing the Jesus Christ drama to everyday proportions, and they had obviously settled in for the long haul. The Gospel of Matthew is a handbook of instructions for a Jesus movement that had made its peace with the world and with its Jewish neighbors.

    It has long been recognized that the Gospel of Matthew is a document of Jewish Christianity, a form of the Jesus legacy that may have been more prevalent during the first centuries than the histories of early Christianity recorded in the New Testament let us see. Since this form of the Jesus movement did not survive the emergence of "orthodox" Christianity in the fourth century C.E., there is a touch of irony in the fact that Matthew's gospel became the preferred "gospel of the church," and that it was given the privilege of first place in the canon of the New Testament. That is because, by that time, the church had clearly distinguished itself from the contemporary form of (rabbinic-synagogue) Judaism, had succeeded in appropriating all the Jewish scriptures as the Christian Old Testament, and had developed a rich anti-Jewish (adversus Judaios) literature. How the author managed to compose such a winner is the question before us. Fortunately for our purposes, his strategies were few and simple, and they are easily discerned and described. As our discussion of these strategies unfolds, a rather clear picture will come into view, not only of the author at work, but of the Matthean community as well. Catching sight of this community may come as something of a relief amidst the swirl of intemperate rhetoric and behavior characteristic of other groups we have reviewed. It lets us see that, for some followers of Jesus at least, his teachings continued to be the primary attraction of his legacy and a sufficiently important reason to be loyal to his school. I will refer to the author of this gospel as Matthew, in keeping with the gospel's later attribution to one of the named disciples. In fact, however, all we know about the person who wrote this gospel is that he thought of himself as a "scribe trained for the kingdom" (Matt. 13:52).

    Matthew composed his gospel by interweaving the teachings of Jesus from the book of Q into Mark's story of Jesus, then adding some sayings and stories of his own. Though he made a few editorial changes to Mark's story, and left out three or four little stories he could not use, he reproduced the whole gospel very much as Mark had written it. And in the case of Q, though he rearranged much of the material to compress it into five speeches that he had Jesus deliver at significant junctures, Matthew used all of it as well. The material special to Matthew consists primarily of the stories of Jesus' birth and infancy, a few additions to the Q material in the first speech of Jesus, the so-called sermon on the mount (Matt. 5-7), a number of parables, four of which were added to a collection of parables taken from Mark 4, and two postresurrection appearance stories. The remarkable thing about Matthew's story is that, though completely dependent on Q and Mark for the bulk of its material, it achieved a character for Jesus and a tenor for his teachings that were totally


    different from either precursor. In Matthew's mind, Jesus appeared as the very flowering of the wisdom and spirit intrinsic to the Jewish tradition and religion. He stepped forth as a teacher in the tradition of Moses and his Torah, not to set it aside, but to explicate its significance as an ethic of personal piety, a call to holiness at the level of attitude and motivation. In Matthew's language, Jesus said that one could. and should be "pure in heart" (Matt. 5:8).

    Knowing what we do about the prehistory, of Q and about the way Mark treated the teachings of Jesus as esoteric, apocalyptic instruction, Matthew's understanding of these very same teachings is astounding. He had to counter Mark's picture of an enigmatic teacher whose instruction was given in "parables" so that the public would not be able to understand (Mark 4:12), and he had to reinterpret the aphoristic and apocalyptic sayings of Q as if they were coded for personal piety. That would have been quite a challenge. His counter to Mark was first and foremost that he included all of Q in his story of Jesus the teacher and portrayed Jesus as a public figure whose teaching was intended to be understood and accepted by any and all who heard him. In Matthew, the crowds hear more than parables, the disciples understand the instruction, and Peter is not put down. He is blessed, pronounced the "rock" on which Jesus will build his church, and given the "keys of the kingdom" (Matt. 16:17-19).

    This change in characterization can be seen from the way Matthew substituted the sermon on the mount for Mark's story of Jesus' first public appearance in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28). For Mark, that incident was programmatic, a display of Jesus' power, and the crowds responded in amazement because "he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes." Matthew could not use that story and did not repeat it. Instead, he doffed his hat at Mark's beginning by making up a little notice about Jesus moving to Capernaum to make his home there (Matt. 4:12-16), and he summarized Mark's account of Jesus' teaching activity and fame throughout Galilee (Matt. 4:23-25). He was then able to focus instead on the sermon as the first major event in Jesus' public appearances (Matthew 5-7). It was only at the end of this sermon that Matthew cited the response of the people that "he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes" (Matt. 7:29).

    Thus, in distinction from Mark's picture, Matthew's Jesus does not make his first impression upon the crowds by doing exorcisms. He makes it by presenting a programmatic speech. The sermon on the mount is Matthew's extremely well-crafted statement of what he wanted the reader to understand about Jesus' teaching. Taking Q's lead, he started with the beatitudes but then brought together sayings from throughout the book of Q in order to compose what the Greeks would have called an epitome of the teachings of a philosophical school. Matthew's epitome follows the rules of rhetoric, comes to a clear conclusion, and must have been considered quite a persuasive speech. For our purposes it will be enough to notice the radically new interpretation of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew when compared to the book of Q. In Q, the teachings of Jesus had little to do with the Mosaic Torah. Matthew's


    contention was that a translation of the Torah into an ethic of subjective piety was exactly what Jesus intended. Three features of Matthew's text can illustrate than change.

    The first feature is a series of contrasts between what the people "heard" had been "said to those of ancient times," Matthew's euphemism for the Mosaic law, and what Jesus said. In each case he used the formula, "But I say unto you.... (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44). Scholars have often called these "antitheses," making of the contrast an opposition between law and gospel. That is wrong. Matthew cleverly found a way to relate some of Jesus' teachings from Q with some Mosaic proscriptions in order to demonstrate their alignment and show that Jesus' teachings struck to the heart of the matter. The Mosaic Torah was not being scuttled. The contrast was between the way the law had been "heard" by Matthew's contemporaries and should be understood by the Jesus people. That contrast is certainly straightforward and very strongly put. Matthew was clearly convinced of the historic significance of Jesus' appearance as a teacher of the piety required by God. One dare not brush him aside. But the teaching was not to be understood in opposition to, or as a substitute for, the law of Moses. Instead, the teaching of Jesus was the very standard by which true adherence to the law of Moses would be judged.

    This point is expressly made in the introductory statement just preceding the series of contrasts, and this is the second feature of the sermon to notice. Jesus says that he "did not come to abolish the law and the prophets... but to fulfill" them, that not one letter or accent mark would be erased as long as the world remained, and that the standard for judging status in the kingdom would be the degree to which one observed even the most insignificant of the commandments (Matt. 5:17-19). And then, just to make sure that the difference was clear between Jesus' interpretation of these commandments and the usual understanding associated with the scribes and Pharisees, Matthew added the warning: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20).

    The third observation is that Matthew did take the liberty of adding a few instructions of his own to the teachings of Jesus. I have already discussed this practice of attribution as normal for school traditions in antiquity, so the fact that Matthew made additions to the corpus of Jesus' teachings should not be considered audacious. What is of interest about them is that they take up matters that were basic to the Pharisaic codes of ritual purity: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18). In each case the point is the same. The codes are to be kept, but not as the Pharisees keep them. The Pharisees do them "outwardly," for show. Jesus demands purity of the heart. His followers are to be "perfect... as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). So the old distinction between the Jesus people and the Pharisees was still in place, but the conflict now was about the proper observance of the Torah. Amazing. Somewhere between the last codification of Q and the writings of Matthew's gospel,


    the law of Moses slipped into the picture as the common ground between the two movements. From the point of view of Matthew's community, the worst thing that Could be said about the Pharisees was that they were hypocrites, people who did not live by what they espoused. What seems to have happened is that, in the aftermath of the Roman Jewish war, Jesus people of the Matthean variety had second thoughts about participating in cultural critique of the Q variety and about entertaining grandiose apocalyptic hopes and fears of the kind projected by Mark's gospel. With the temple's destruction fifteen or twenty years behind them, and the Torah coming into prominence as that artifact of the grand traditions still available for any group interested in alignment with the epic of Israel, Jesus people in the tradition of both Q and Mark had no other choice than to come to terms with Moses. They were not Jesus people of the Thomas kind, and they were not Christians on the model of the gentile Christ cult. Thus a retreat into cultivating personal enlightenment or cosmic salvation was not an option. What to do? Why not think of Jesus as a latter-day Moses? Maybe, given the recent, wrenching history of foreign powers threatening. to squash the people of God, Jesus was like Moses, God's man of the hour with God's instructions for the people. And not just like Moses, but a teacher whose teachings were actually based on Moses' Torah interpreted for the new time. Maybe that was it, or so the thinking seems to have been.

    So Matthew added the Torah to his growing collection of texts, and Q now read through Matthew's eyes would never sound the same again. But what about Mark? Even with Q added to Mark, Jesus would come on pretty strong, and the impression would still be left of a prophet with fire in his eyes, an exorcist zapping demons, or an apocalyptic seer who expected a quick return to take care of those who killed him. That did not fit. So Matthew devised yet another strategy to play down the sudden, overly dramatic appearance and exit of Mark's son of God. In this case he did it mainly by changing the way the story begins and ends.

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    Somewhere in the Aegean, around the year 120 C.E., a great two-volume work appeared that expanded upon the gospel story of Jesus by adding a sequel called the Acts of the Apostles. As with the other narrative gospels, we do not know anything about the author except what can be inferred from the writing itself. Later in the second century, the work was attributed to Luke, the co-worker of Paul (mentioned in Philemon 24; Col. 4:14; and 2 Tim. 4:11), just as other anonymous literature from earlier times was attributed to either the apostles or their companions in order to validate their truth. It has thus become customary to refer to the author as Luke, even though the Luke mentioned by Paul cannot have been the one who wrote this work.

    From the writing it is clear that mythmaking in early Christian circles was no longer fixed solely on Jesus. Instead, interest had turned to focus on the apostles. The figure of Jesus was receding into the past, and the apostles provided the link between Jesus and the bishops, leaders of Christian congregations who were responsible for instructing the people. Luke understood what it meant for the bishops to be dependent upon the apostles for their teachings, and how important it was for the apostles to have received their instructions from Jesus. As a historian, he also knew how important it was to fit Jesus and his appearance into the history of Israel and so imagine history as a whole to have had a rhyme and reason capable of accounting for the emergence of the Christian churches and their role as ethical leaven in the Roman Empire. So his story about Jesus could not highlight the sudden entrance into history of God's son, as Mark pictured it. It would have to be a chapter in a much greater sweep of history in which God had always commissioned agents to carry out his work.

    Luke's theory was that God had always been actively engaged in a quest for an obedient people. God's method was also clear. He had always commissioned teachers to instruct his people to be good. Luke recognized these teachers in the roles played by the Hebrew prophets and noted that they were always inspired by God's spirit. He drew the conclusion that the holy spirit had been God's agent throughout history, and that the holy spirit had always worked by inspiring prophet-teachers to call the people to remembrance when they forgot-God's instructions and to teach them anew when they repented. Some of the people always listened to them and obeyed, while others turned to persecute them. This had happened over and over


    again since the beginning. It was the same during the time of Israel, with Jesus, with the apostles, and presumably for Luke's time as well.

    For Luke, the life of Jesus was a significant moment in history because it marked the point when God's spirit became available to all peoples, not just the Jews. It was also significant because it revealed, by the example set by Jesus, just how good people could be if they listened to the holy spirit and obeyed. It is not surprising, then, to find that the important thing about Jesus, according to Luke, was that the holy spirit was especially active in his life. It was the holy spirit that prepared for his coming in the person of John the Baptist (Luke 1:15-17, 67). It was the holy spirit that "overshadowed" Mary his mother (Luke 1:35). And it was the holy spirit that inspired the devout Simeon in the temple to foretell the child's destiny as "the Lord's messiah" and a "light to the gentiles" (Luke 2:25-26). It was the holy spirit that descended upon him in baptism (Luke 3:22), led him into the wilderness for testing (Luke 4:1), and filled him for his return to Galilee (Luke 4:14). There, in his first public appearance in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus stood up and read from the prophet Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me..." (Luke 4:16-21). Thus Luke set the theme for his life of Jesus. Jesus was important because the spirit was upon him.

    As the story unfolds, however, there is not much evidence of the activity of the holy spirit. One reason is that, from this point on, Luke used material from Mark and Q in which the notion of the holy spirit had not been developed. Another is that Luke viewed Jesus as the full manifestation of obedience to the spirit. Jesus' life was a golden age, and his story was a picture of what human history would be like if there were no temptation, testing, conflict, or evil in the world. It was a time when. Satan "departed from him until an opportune time" (Luke 4:13), not to appear again until he "entered into Judas" to betray Jesus (Luke 22:3). Thus Luke did not need to emphasize the agency of the holy spirit during Jesus' life. At the end of Jesus' life, Luke returned to his theme with Jesus' announcement to his disciples that he would send "what my Father promised" (Luke 24:49). At first that announcement seems to be a riddle. But turning the page to the second part of Luke's history, we find out what it was, namely the promise of the holy spirit that "came upon" the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 1-2). That is how the disciples became apostles and, filled with the holy spirit, they went out to preach the gospel among all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem and ending in Rome (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:4, 8; 28:16-28). I shall explore Luke's story of the apostles in chapter 8. In the present chapter it is the effect of Luke's grand history of salvation upon the way he told the story of Jesus that deserves some attention.

    Luke wrote his story of Jesus with a grand scheme in mind, a history of salvation that started with Adam at the beginning of the world, coursed through the history of Israel, peaked in the life of Jesus, spread out to the nations at Pentecost, and found its new center at Rome when Paul, the apostle to the nations, arrived there. No wonder Luke's Jesus looks a bit tame in comparison with the portraits painted by the other gospels. History had larger horizons now, another divine agent capable


    of filling those horizons, and a lively chapter of apostolic exploits that had intervened between the time of Jesus and Luke's own time. Notice that Luke's history accounts only for the first fifty years of the first century. Between the time of Paul in the 50s at the end of Luke's history and the time of Luke's writing in the early second century, there are yet another fifty or sixty years to consider. So the truly remarkable thing about Luke is that he was able to write such a full and fresh account of Jesus' life.

    As was the case with Matthew's gospel, a writing that Luke does not appear to have known, Luke's life of Jesus was composed by merging Mark and Q and then adding some special material of his own. Luke is evidence that a copy of Q was still in circulation in the early second century. As Luke's use of Q shows, however, and as many other gospels that were being written during the early second century document, Q was by then all but passe in Christian circles. Luke is the last evidence we have for the circulation of Q as a separate text, and he incorporated its sayings into his story of Jesus in a very matter-of-fact manner. He was not as concerned as Mark was to put a spin on Jesus' teachings in order to make them relevant to his readers, as if the voice of Jesus were speaking directly to them and their immediate situation. And he does not portray Jesus laying down the law for all time, as Matthew did for his readers. Luke invited his readers to look on from afar as Jesus walked and talked with those of his own time. The teachings in Q were now to be viewed from a distance.

    The way Luke treated Q lets us see what he thought of Jesus' teachings. He did not rearrange the sequence of Q, as Matthew did, but inserted it into Mark's story as if Mark had merely left it out of account. The early Q material on John and Jesus, and the first unit of Jesus' teachings, which begins with the beatitudes, are appropriately placed early in the story (Luke 6-7). But most of Q occurs later in the story as Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. This has been called Luke's special section (Luke 9:51-18:14). He not only created the impression of a leisurely journey by suggesting a series of stops along the way for Jesus to engage in teaching, he introduced questioners and scenes so that Jesus could explain his teachings as he traveled along. Luke actually went to some length to translate much of Q into commonsense moralisms, and this is where he added the famous Lukan parables, such as the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), the rich fool (Luke. 12:13-21), and the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The overall impression is that of an irenic, popular philosopher with his disciples, making their way through village marketplaces, stopping here and there to accept an invitation to a meal. He was, as Peter will later be heard to say, a man "who went about doing good" (Acts 10:38), or, as Luke has the centurion say at the crucifixion, "This man was surely a righteous person" (Luke 2 3:47). The way Luke's Jesus appears in the world is quite a contrast to the sense of confrontation in Mark or the serious tone of the instructional speeches in Matthew.

    The ambiance of Jesus' teaching in Luke's gospel also contrasts markedly with the sharp edge characteristic of the sermons in Acts. This is a telling difference. It


    means that, for Luke, Jesus' significance was no longer located in the enduring importance of his teachings. His teachings were important for his own task and time; it was his life as a whole that was important for all time. It was a life that, even though it had changed the course of history, could be properly assessed only in retrospect. It was an ideal life to be summarized in sermons and used to call Luke's contemporaries to task and to repentance. There is, for instance, a much sharper polemic against the Jews in the sermons in Acts than in Jesus' teaching about them, or even than in the way Luke portrayed their responses to Jesus during his lifetime. The sermons in Acts are the clue to Luke's understanding of the life of Jesus in retrospect. It was important; it was the hinge of history; but it was past, and its importance could be seen only when one looked back and realized the difference it had made for all subsequent history. Luke's lasting achievement with regard to views of the "historical" Jesus was that his story created the Christian sense of Jesus' importance as historical.

    Luke's accomplishment is remarkable when one realizes that he based his life of Jesus on the Gospel of Mark, for the difference in the ways in which each affects the imagination of the reader is radical. What changes did he have to make to Mark's story, other than inserting the teachings from Q? One change that made a big difference is that Luke dispensed with one of the two series of miracle stories in Mark (Mark 6:45-8:26). That cut down on the impression Mark created of Jesus as the man of power. Luke also substituted his story of Jesus reading from Isaiah and teaching in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-30) for Mark's story of the exorcism in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28). Instead of the Pharisees always being cast as bad guys, as in Mark, Luke has Jesus dining with one, as if the Pharisees could do right if only they would, and he revised Mark's story of the anointing of Jesus by the woman to make this point (Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50). Luke also left out or changed anti-Pharisaic material that he apparently thought unhelpful or too damning. One example is the controversy story a}out washings in Mark 7:1-23 that Luke did not repeat. Another is that he rephrased Mark's announcement of the Pharisees' plot "to destroy" Jesus (Mark 3:6). According to Luke, "They discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus" (Luke 6:11). So although Luke used almost all of Mark and did not alter the basic story line, he modulated the feeling of the story by making many small changes to Mark's text. By making these changes, he erased the sense of urgency in Mark's story and scrubbed Mark's dramatic characterization of Jesus as the son of God in conflict with society. Instead of Jesus suddenly appearing on the scene with the power to cast out demons, as Mark pictured him, Luke's Jesus comes slowly into view as a child emerging from the old, old story of God and his people Israel, a story that was destined to continue long after Jesus' death, albeit with God's attention now directed toward gentiles. And as Jesus grows up and takes his place among the people of his time, a time Luke knew to be one of great historical transition with or without Jesus, Jesus' cool demeanor and philosophic discourse lets you know that he knew his place in that larger story.


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    Copyright © 1995 by HarperCollins -- All rights reserved.
    Only limited, "fair use" excerpts reproduced here.

    [ 175 ]


    VISIONS OF THE      
    COSMIC LORD      

    What a somersault, turning the page between Luke's life of Jesus and the Gospel of John. You land in the presence of God before the world was made, watching as his powerful logos (word) begins to move and create the life and light that streak I through the universe changing darkness into day. And then, it isn't long before we read that Jesus was that logos! This is a totally different imaginary world from that projected by Luke's plan of history, or the law of perfection that would never change until the end of time in Matthew's gospel, or the Markan vision of the kingdom of (dyad that would only be revealed at the eschaton. We are now in the presence of a cosmic power that pulsates throughout the world making all of time and space eternally present around us.

    This is the world of the cosmic Christ, one of the mythmaking options that several early Christian groups found attractive. In the texts and traditions so far encountered, we have had only a glimpse or two of the first stages of this mythmaking process. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus' words had become an invitation to personal enlightenment in harmony with the cosmic kingdom Jesus had revealed. And in the Christ cult, the martyr myth was soon transformed by imagining the resurrected Christ installed as cosmic lord. In both of these cases, we had occasion to note the interesting combination of Jewish wisdom thought and Greek philosophical concepts that merged in the new mythologies. In this chapter we shall look at our fully developed systems of cosmic worldview, each governed by the concept of the cosmic Christ. In the Gospel of John, Jesus as the son and logos of God reveals the structure of the cosmos. In the post-Pauline school tradition, documented in the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians, the wisdom of God invites the reader to see and praise the cosmic Christ. In the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is depicted as the great high priest performing an eternal sacrifice in the cosmic temple of God. And in the Revelation to John, the dominant cosmic image is that of the city of God. A closer look at each of these will help us understand the thought invested in this kind


    of mythmaking and the rewards that early Christians reaped by imagining the Christ as a cosmic power.

    Please keep in mind that the mythmaking process always includes a reconfiguration of the "world" in which one lives. That is the way we measure the fit between our social circumstances and the place we would like to imagine for ourselves in the larger scheme of things. That early Christians thought of their world as an organism (cosmos), a universe pulsating with powers that both threatened to break it apart and pulled it back together, should not be thought strange. That was the way the Greeks thought of it, and everyone influenced by Greek thought had learned to do the same. The critical questions were how the cosmos was structured, how the powers were imagined to function, and whether such a view seemed reasonable in light of the schools of science and philosophy that were in charge of knowledge about the natural orders.

    We will therefore have to proceed with caution, for these early Christian cosmic visions will surely strike us as vagaries unless we see them against the backdrop of the world of late antiquity. They all stem from a time when the first flush of excitement had subsided in the Jesus movements and Christian congregations. The imagined kingdom of God had been postponed or displaced, projected onto locations at the far ends of human imagination in heaven above, in the deep structure of the universe, at the creation of the world, or at the eschaton. The vision was still at work however, and the investments people had made in the social movements were still strong. Some had even found ways to make contact with the mysteries hidden since the foundation of the world that were now revealed because of Christ. And on that cosmic screen, as we shall see, early Christians learned to simulate the conflicts they experienced and the victories they hoped for in the real world.


    John started his story of Jesus with a poem in praise of the logos, God's son and active agent in the creation of the world (John 1:1-18). According to his poem, which begins before the world was made, this logos circles around and around through a series of interlocking lines, leaving in his wake created things, life, light, and finally humankind. Then, picking up speed and spiraling down through all of troubled time and darkened space, the logos finally takes the form of a human being, and behold, it was Jesus! "We," John wrote, "have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son" (John 1:14). As for those of us who did not see that glory, we might want to ask where and when that happened, since it seems to be a sighting that other early Jesus people and Christians did not have. Who besides the author was included in the "we," and did they keep the vision to themselves?

    Scholars date the Gospel of John in the 90s and see it as evidence for a distinct Christian community that developed its own views of Jesus more or less independently. It has long been recognized that this gospel differs from the other three New


    Testament gospels and that it must be studied separately. The other three are known is the "synoptic gospels" because they have so much material in common that they can profitably be "viewed together" (from synopsis). The Jesus, setting, and story line of the fourth gospel, however, cannot be aligned with the synoptics. John's Jesus appears from heaven, speaks only in self-referential terms, knows that this confounds his listeners, but insists nevertheless that they accept his assertions about himself. lie is the son from the Father, the bread of life, the water of life, the way to the Father, and so forth. Those who want to make sure are brushed aside or worse. Those who "see" who he is, mainly his disciples, are told, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). So it has not been possible to meld John's Jesus with that of the synoptics as if each had merely emphasized different features of the same historical figure. John's Jesus is an altogether different kind of being.

    In the Gospel of John, the story of Jesus' baptism is missing, there is no account of the transfiguration, and instead of a last supper of Jesus with his disciples there is a scene in which Jesus washes their feet. At the beginning of the story, instead of Jesus' calling the disciples to be "fishers of men," as in Mark, he invites them to "come and see" who he is and where he lives. Instead of his miracles creating astonishment among the crowds, they provide occasions for Jesus to interpret them as "signs" of the spiritual gifts he can give. In the synoptics there is a clear distinction between Jesus' activity in Galilee and his one-time visit to Jerusalem. In John, Jerusalem is ever present in the background, as is the cycle of Jewish festivals, and Jesus visits the city three times before the final appearance, each time for the express purpose of revealing himself on the occasion of a Jewish festival (John 2:13; 5:1; 7:14; 10:22; 12:12). In the synoptics, the story of Jesus' entering the temple to drive out the money changers is an act of provocation at the end of the gospel (Mark 11:15-17); in John this story is told at the very beginning, combined with Jesus' prediction of the temple's destruction, and interpreted as a coded reference to Jesus' own body (John 2:13-22). It is as if the whole story in John is about the "transfigured" Jesus popping in and out of the temple at Jerusalem. And the material special to John is also highly mythic: the hymn to the logos, the miracle stories that invite lengthy monologues of the I-am-the-son-from-the-Father variety, the allegorized parables of the good shepherd (John 10) and the vine (John 15), the foot washing (John 13), the "upper room" instructions (John 13-16), Jesus' last prayer (John 17), and his after-death appearances. All told, John's story seems to be about the manifestation of a god, not about the historical Jesus or even the Jesus of the synoptics.

    And yet, John's gospel does share some features with the synoptics. John the Baptizer introduces Jesus at the beginning, there are miracle stories in the middle, the Pharisees and others develop a plot to kill Jesus, and there is a trial and crucifixion at the end, all of which is reminiscent of Mark's outline. The call of the disciples, the cleansing of the temple, and a last meeting of Jesus with his disciples are all included, though in each case the stories have been radically changed and relocated when compared with the synoptic accounts. Some scholars are saying that John


    must have known about the Gospel of Mark because his account of the trial and crucifixion follows Mark so closely that some form of textual dependence is probable. Surely that is correct. The passion plot was a postwar Markan creation, and it is improbable that John would have come up with the same plot independently. This means that John's community cannot have developed in complete isolation from other Jesus groups and Christ congregations. But it certainly did go its own way, probably from an early time, and it put its own distinctive interpretation on the Jesus materials and Christ traditions that it shared with other groups.

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    much the same way as the Thomas people had done. The big difference between the two groups was that the Johannine community treasured their sense of being a social unity with a claim upon the heritage of Israel and found themselves traumatized by their conflict with the Pharisees. They had more in common with the Jesus groups that produced the pronouncement stories and the synoptic gospels than the Thomas people. But they did not take either the Markan turn to an apocalyptic enclave mentality or the Matthean turn to acquiescence as a subcultural Jewish sect. And, like Mark, they were not interested in becoming a congregation of the Christ on the model of a Hellenistic association or mystery cult. Instead, aware of all these options, they cultivated their miracle myth of origin and developed a mythology of their founder to correspond with their own sense of being a beloved community in the midst of a hostile environment. They apparently were not interested in baptism and memorial rituals, but they may have met for meals, washed one another's feet, prayed together, and sung hymns of praise to the logos and to Jesus as the son of God. The monologue material, famous for its repetitious "I am" sayings, is suspiciously poetic in ways similar to the opening poem in praise of the logos. Interlocking lines pick up on a term just used, add to it another, then circle back in a rhythmic pattern that overloads the meaning of terms and frustrates clear, conceptual definitions. It gives one the impression of having been produced by collective chanting, and, as a matter of fact, one is not always sure where the voice of Jesus leaves off and the voice of the Johannine community takes over. For John, the "I" of the mythological Jesus, the light of the world, and the "I" of the Johannine Christian, the enlightened one who "abides in Jesus" and "in whom Jesus' words abide," are, in the last analysis, one and the same.


    Paul's letters to the Colossians and Ephesians are not authentic. There is not a suggestion of the personal Paul in either of them. The styles are different, the vocabulary is different, and the rhetoric is different from authentic Pauline letters. Paul may not always have been convincing in his letters to the churches, but he was always passionately engaged and intellectually sharp. The letters to the Colossians and Ephesians are flaccid and, to tell the truth, quite boring. So why are they among the letters of Paul in the New Testament?

    The first answer is that, by the time the church started drawing up lists of literature acceptable for public reading in the third and fourth centuries, Colossians and Ephesians were already part of the "letters of Paul" and so came along for the ride. The second answer is that they were written in Paul's name after his death by leaders loyal to the school that survived him. Writing in the name of the founder of a school was common practice at this time, so the scholars' conclusion that these letters are pseudonymous (written under a false name) should not suggest dishonesty on the part of those who wrote them. On the contrary, these letters are proof that


    Paul's influence took the form of generating a school that looked to him as its founder. The letter to the Colossians, written sometime during the 70s or 80s shows that the authority of the apostle could be called upon to address a sectarian conflict that had arisen in Asia Minor. That it was written as if during his lifetime would not have damaged the argument. The letter to the Ephesians, which lacks the local address "to the Ephesians" in the earliest manuscripts, appears to have been a cover letter for an early collection of Pauline letters addressed to "the church" in general. This would mean that scribes at some center for Christian instruction were busy making copies of Paul's letters for dissemination to a network of churches, perhaps as early as the 80s or 90s. Though we can't be sure, Ephesus comes to mind as a likely location.

    Both letters show, however, that the influence of Paul's memory and letters did not extend to his ideas or theological system. He was remembered and honored as the apostle to the gentiles and the founder of Christian congregations. But his gospel had been watered down, if ever it had been understood full strength, to the notion that the death and resurrection of Christ created a new human order into which people could be transferred by means of the Christian rite of baptism. Nothing is left of Paul's heated arguments for freedom from the law, the justification of sinners, faith in Christ, scriptural precedence, epic revisions, or apocalyptic scenarios and threats. For Paul, Christian existence was understood as an imitation of the sufferings and sacrificial death of Christ; full participation in the resurrection of Christ would have to wait until the eschaton. In Colossians, by contrast, Christians were addressed as those who had already been "raised with him [Christ] through faith… when you were buried with him in baptism" (Col. 2:12). In Ephesians, the author speaks for all Christians, saying, "Even when we were dead through our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly, places in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:5-6). This is transfer terminology devoid of transformational drama, ethnic identity conflict, or apocalyptic consequence. Something must have happened to the Pauline Christ.

    What happened to Paul's Christ was that he became an imaginary world the size of the cosmos. With a little help from the Stoics, Christians of the Christ cult had reconceived the image of Christ as cosmic lord by thinking of his kingdom as the hidden structure of the cosmos and he himself as the creative power that brought it into being and continued to sustain it. The Greek penchant for correlating anthropology with cosmology had, in this case, the weird result of imagining the Christ cosmos in the monstrous form of a person, with Christ as the "head" and both the world and the church as his "body." As the Christ hymn puts it (Col. 1:15-20):

    He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
    For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
        Things visible and invisible,
        whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers --
        all things have been created through him.


    He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
    He is the head of the body, the church;
    He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
    So that he might come to have first place in everything.
    For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
    And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
        whether on earth or in heaven,
        By making peace through the blood of his cross.
    Paul would not have liked this hymn. Christ was now imagined as the power that created the world and held it together. The grand event of reconciling any and all tensions, fractures, or oppositions in either the cosmic realm or the realm of human history had already been accomplished according to this hymn. Since all had already been accomplished, induction into this peaceable kingdom need not be traumatic. As the author of Ephesians puts it (Eph. 2:19-22):
    So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
    "What about conversion," Paul would ask, "what about holiness, what about suffering and service, what about the Romans, what about Jews, what about the real world, and what about the final judgment of God?" "What is the problem?" these Paulinists would say:
    Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph. 2:12-16)
    It sounds good. But it could have had meaning only for Christians who had found the Christ cult and its congregations a large enough world in which to live and not feel threatened by social forces in the world outside the cult. The rhetoric of reconciliation is particularly hollow if listened to through Jewish ears, or even if read in the light of the Christian polemics against the Jews that began to pop up in


    other literature around this time. The authors of these letters represent a development in the Christ cult that can only be called philosophical or perhaps even gnostic. They had actually succeeded in mastering thoughts about such things as hostility, ideology, social distinctions, martyrdom, death, and the declarations of guilt and innocence by imagining a little cosmic drama to have played itself out in which Christ "made peace by the blood of his cross." In order to live in such a world, to belong to the "body of Christ," as they would have said, one need not struggle any longer with the issues of faith and faithfulness (pistis); one would need only a fertile mind and constant intellectual stimulation to keep the body of Christ in view and explore its hidden recesses, to keep feeling sure that it was present and that one really did belong to it. And that, of course, is what the letters are all about. The authors called this mental effort "wisdom":
    Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. (Col. 3:16)

    I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God's mystery, that is Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Col. 2:2-3)

    I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:17-23)
    Living in such an imaginary world, having to keep it in place by constant reminder, one wonders what these Christians did for excitement, or even what they did not do in order to be thought good citizens of such a kingdom. Taking another look at the letters with such questions in mind, answers are not immediately forthcoming, but the questions do help us focus our observations. Excitements had become a problem, it seems, and had to be countered, not fostered. To judge from the concerns expressed by the author of the letter to the Christians at Colossae, at any rate, the Colossians were observing "festivals, new moons, and sabbaths," keeping taboos on food and other matters, performing ascetic practices, and cultivating the


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    For the letter to the Hebrews we have to imagine a scholar ensconced in some private scriptorium, rummaging through his stacks of scrolls and papyrus notes, walking pensively in his garden, bent over his stand-up writing desk for hours, poring over fine points of the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, and trying out some ideas with a few other highly educated and sophisticated Christian intellectuals. One suspects that these conversations took place at table, lightly spread with fruits and nuts and a small amphora of modest-quality wine. He, and we know he was male because of a masculine gender self-reference (Heb. 11:32), may not have had as quick and sharp a mind as Paul's or as personal and passionate an approach to public debate and theological argumentation, but he was far superior to Paul in learning, analytical capacity, and systematic thinking. He was capable of keeping in mind large quantities of conceptual detail and working with multiple themes as he wove concepts in and out of a vast Platonic world of ideas and watched the cosmic picture change with each new stitch in what eventually amounted to an elaborate


    mental tapestry. He was also capable of elegant writing. His treatise leads the reader to ever more complex ideas, triggering unimaginable connotations, to end with a burning exhortation not to give up on the Christian faith. His intellectual labor was not the result of a momentary inspiration, and his treatise was not written in a weekend. The Epistle to the Hebrews is the result of many months, perhaps years, of intense scholarly research and writing.

    Unfortunately, we do not know who this author was, either by name, location, or association with a specific tradition of early Christian thought. From our point of view, Hebrews just appears out of the blue, without title, destination, or signature, and its particular conception of the Christian faith does not fit anywhere on our map of early Christian writings. It must have been written sometime between the flowering of Pauline Christianity in the 60s and 70s and the writing of 1 Clement in 96 C.E., because an elaborate Christ myth is the starting point for the author's construction of his Christian cosmos, and the treatise seems to have been known by Clement of Rome, cited in his letter to the Corinthians. A date during the 80s would be plausible. But other clues are extremely sparse, and the content of Hebrews cannot be used to place it because it draws upon so many different intellectual traditions. As far as scholars have been able to tell, the author and the Christian congregation he had in mind might have been located anywhere in the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

    The author had a definite proposal to make, and he developed a lengthy and sustained argument to support it. Hebrews is not really a letter. It is what the Greeks called a protreptic, or philosophical exhortation, a treatise aimed at persuading its readers to accept a particular philosophical point of view. In this case the point of view was that Christ was the Christians' heavenly high priest, having made an eternal sacrifice of himself for the sins of his people. With such a thesis to propose, it is no wonder that the author had to develop a lengthy argument. None of the Jesus people or Christ cult people we have considered thus far had dared such a thought. But the author was serious about his proposal, apparently, and must have had real Christians in mind. If they were Christians who belonged to the Christ cult, his magnum opus may have been written too soon. The ritual meal in memorial to a martyr was not yet being celebrated as a sin offering.

    Judging from the spotty trail of references to Hebrews by writers of the second and third centuries, it did not become a popular and widely read book. Hebrews may therefore be a case of an intellectual taking a wrong turn in the collective process of early Christian mythmaking. If the author did succeed in getting a hearing from the congregation he had in mind, that chapter of Christian history did not leave a trace in the collective memory of the church. His treatise was saved from oblivion by some scribe in the school of Paul who thought it worth adding to the collection of Pauline letters. It was as a part of that collection that the treatise found its way into a list of "apostolic" writings that Athanasius recommended for early


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    One Sunday on the island of Patmos, so reports the author of the Revelation to John, he was "in the spirit," heard a voice, turned and saw a vision of the cosmic Christ with seven stars (angels) in his right hand standing in the midst of seven golden lampstands (churches). The Christ told him what to write to the angels of seven churches, those at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. For each there was a commendation, a criticism, and a warning about the imminent return of Jesus. Then a door into heaven opened and the canopy of the cosmos rolled back. John was taken up to the throne of God where twenty-four elders, seven spirits, four living creatures, a scroll with seven seals, a booming voice, a slaughtered lamb with seven horns and seven eyes (which was really the lion of the tribe of Judah), and thousands of angels set the stage for the drama of "what must soon take place" (Revelation 1-5).

    The lamb was found worthy to open the seven seals on the scroll that contained the script of what would happen. One after another the seals were broken, and there appeared in sequence the four horsemen of the apocalypse, astronomical disorders, the protective marking of 144,000 servants of God from Israel, and the rapture of a multitude from every nation who had "washed their robes in the blood of the lamb" (Rev. 7:14). As the seventh seal was broken, there was silence in the heavens for half an hour until the seven angels took up their seven trumpets. As each was blown, the world started to come apart. There was hail mixed with fire and blood. A third of the waters became a sea of blood. A third of the waters turned to wormwood. And the moon and the stars ceased to shine. That was what happened when the first four trumpets were blown. Then came three woes. The sound of the fifth trumpet unleashed the first woe: Smoke from the bottomless pit turned to locusts with hair like


    women's hair, teeth like lions' teeth, scales like iron breastplates, and tails with stingers like scorpions, to torture the people without protective marks. The sound of the sixth trumpet unleashed the second woe: Four angels of death, two hundred million horses of death, and three plagues joined to kill a third of humankind. Then, seven thunders were sealed up in a little scroll that John, our author, had to eat in order later to prophesy. He was also told to measure the temple of God where two witnesses would stand to prophesy, be killed by the beast from the bottomless pit, and be raised again to life in three and one-half days. All of that happened at the sound of the sixth trumpet. When the seventh trumpet sounded, a child was born to" a woman who was standing on the moon, clothed with the sun, when a great red dragon appeared to devour the child, and war broke out in heaven with Michael and the angels fighting against the dragon. The cosmic chase was on, but the dragon': disappeared for a time. Instead, huge beasts appeared from the sea and the earth, angels flew through the heavens wailing, seven bowls of wrath were poured out, and the whore of Babylon fell. Then the rider on the white horse appeared, the dragon returned, was cornered, and thrown into the pit and sealed. Immediately, the new Jerusalem descended gracefully from heaven with twelve gates to the city. It had no need for a temple because of the lamb in its midst, and no need for the sun because God was its light, a light that would never, never cease to shine.

    The point of the vision was that the lord Jesus was coming very soon "to repay according to everyone's work" (Rev. 22:12). This apparently meant inclusion or exclusion from the heavenly Jerusalem, and the faithful should therefore remain faithful until that city appeared, no matter what the whore of Babylon might suggest or the dragon threaten. We might want to ask what on earth propelled our author into the heavens to suffer through such a ghastly vision. Judging from the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3, John was worried about two things: false teachings and what he called "affliction" (thlipsis), sometimes translated as "persecution." These churches, all in western Asia Minor and apparently known to our author, were not behaving properly from his point of view. Some were not taking their vows as seriously as they once did. Others were paying attention to false teachings such as those of `Salaam," "Jezebel" the prophetess, the Nicolaitans, and the "synagogue of Satan." We have no way of knowing what these teachings were, but it is clear that John thought they were not true to Christian teaching and that they were the source of such bad practices as eating food sacrificed to idols and fornication. The letters to the angels, who presumably would carry the messages to the churches, are the words he heard from the cosmic Jesus who once was dead but now was alive with the keys of death and hades (Rev. 1:18). That is fairly ultimate authority. What the lord Jesus wanted John to write was a warning to the churches that they should repent, rekindle their original Christian fervor, and learn to wait patiently for their rewards. Thus their deviance from the faith was a very serious issue in Jesus' mind and in John's mind.


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    Copyright © 1995 by HarperCollins -- All rights reserved.
    Only limited, "fair use" excerpts reproduced here.

    [ 199 ]


    LETTERS FROM      
    THE APOSTLES      

    Early Christian mythmaking changed course around the turn of the second century. A new set of conceptual problems had surfaced for many Christian groups worried about the bewildering variety of ideologies and practices that had emerged in the name of Jesus. Hasidic sectarians, local mystery cults, itinerant magicians, exegetical mystifiers, cosmic philosophers, and gnostic mystagogues were all calling on the name of Jesus to validate the source or the truth of their programs. Not everyone found this confusion of religious experimentation threatening. Many felt it was titillating in much the same way as modern new agers are attracted to the exploration of cosmic and psychic mysteries for personal orientation. But for a certain type of Christian congregation the range of experimentation became increasingly threatening. These were congregations that occupied a broadly centrist position where the Jesus movements and the Christ cults were learning to accommodate one another. They were those who had accepted the Christ myth, but welcomed the narrative gospels; formed networks of Christian congregations, but thought of themselves as heirs of the Israel legacy; imagined an eventual apocalyptic judgment, but organized themselves to take care of one another in the meantime; knew they were a minority within the larger Roman world but harbored universalistic, this-worldly hopes for the kingdom they represented. The leaders from congregations of this type began to be worried about losing their claim to represent the true Christian teaching. Their answer was to anchor the truth of their gospel in the claim that they "received" it directly from a disciple who had known Jesus personally.

    This turn toward interest in Jesus' disciples was a natural move. It followed a model that was firmly in place among the schools of Greek philosophy. According to this model, the teachings of a school were understood to have originated with a founder-teacher and then to have been transmitted through a line of leading disciple-teachers. These disciple-teachers were known as successors (diadochoi), and the teachings were known as the school's tradition. Diogenes Laertius used this model to trace the entire history of Greek philosophy from its legendary beginnings with


    the seven sages and thus account for the antiquity of the many schools of Greek thought still active during his time (ca. 200 C.E.).

    However, there was a problem with this model for the Christians. The spread of the Jesus and Christ movements had far outpaced the rise of a philosophical school, and the vast majority of first-generation Christians, including the teachers, preachers, and leaders in charge of local congregations, had never known the historical Jesus. Seventy years had passed without keeping track of the diadochoi in the schools of Jesus. The first itinerant founders of Christian congregations were dead. Local congregations were under the care and leadership of resident "elders" and patrons, just as any association would have been. And as for the collective memories of Jesus' first disciples, they were very fuzzy and hardly appropriate for the task at hand. The early Jesus movements had not left any record of disciples that Jesus had trained to carry on his program. As we have seen, that is because Jesus did not have such a program and did not train disciples for leadership.

    To make matters worse, during the earliest phases of the Jesus movements every new instruction had been attributed to Jesus himself, not to a successor disciple. Paul's converts had never had a "disciple" to guarantee their tradition. And what of the several other groups, such as those who produced the gospel that was eventually attributed to John, groups that had developed intricate systems of myth and ritual without ever thinking it necessary to call on the name of a disciple in order to feel sure about their experience of the cosmic Christ? They had gotten along' quite nicely with anonymous and collective literary production, with only the voice of a mythic Jesus ringing in their ears. And why was the literature current among the various Jesus movements, including the book of Q, not signed by any of "the disciples"? Come to think of it, there was very little evidence to support the notion that the teachings of Jesus had been transmitted through disciples whom he himself had taught.

    When Mark finally thought to use the model of a teacher with his disciples to write his life of Jesus in the 70s, the only disciples he knew about were very unlikely candidates for the transmission of his gospel. He knew about two different sets of named disciples. One set was the trio of Peter, James, and John, the "pillars," as Paul called them (Gal. 2:9), who had been in Jerusalem before the war. And Mark made a point of portraying them as understudies of Jesus. But as we know, he also made them look very foolish, as if every reader would know that the real Peter and company would never have agreed with Mark's view of the kingdom of God and his novel life of Jesus. Mark also knew something about another set of disciples called "the twelve" and he actually produced a list of names for them (Mark 3:13-19). But now he had two lists of names, one for the pillars and one for the twelve, and where they overlapped they did not agree. The James of the list of twelve and the James of the three pillars in Jerusalem were not the same. The James of Jerusalem had been Jesus' brother (Gal. 1:19), not a disciple, not the son of Zebedee and brother of John, as Mark said (Mark 3:17). So where did Mark get the idea of the twelve disciples in the first place?


    The idea of twelve disciples was already in currency when Paul was active in the 50s, for he includes "the twelve" in his list of those to whom Jesus, he said, appeared after his death (1 Cor. 15: 5). And at the later stages of Q's composition a saying was added about disciples sitting on thrones in the kingdom of God, "judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Q 22:28-30). These references show that the notion "the twelve" was developed in the course of mythic elaborations with the purpose of laying claim to the concept of Israel. Names were not mentioned because the concept was a fiction and would work best without naming names. It was not until Mark wrote his gospel in the 70s that we have a list of names for the twelve disciples, presumably his own short list of names associated with the early phases of the Jesus groups known to him. And it was not until Matthew wrote his gospel in the late 80s that Peter finally emerged as the preeminent leader of the twelve, cast now as the disciple Jesus selected to carry on his work. So for those who started to worry about the truth of their gospel toward the end of the first century, and how the gospel instructions had gotten from Jesus to them, some juggling of the "historical" records was absolutely necessary.

    Well, then, if no early writings could be traced to the disciples portrayed in the gospels, second-century Christians would just have to invent them. Imagining that the disciples must have written down their memories of Jesus and kept notes on his instructions to them would not be difficult, for that belonged to the teacher-school model. And, as we have seen, the practice of attributing speech to illustrious persons of the past was a skill learned in school. First-century Jesus people had created and cultivated their "memory" of Jesus on this model. Second-century mythmaking would follow suit. It would simply shift its focus from Jesus and his authority to an interest in his disciples as apostles and missionaries.

    The narrative gospels had already taken the first step by imagining that the disciples had been commissioned by Jesus. The term that began to be used in place of disciples or the twelve was apostles. Apostles were messengers who had been commissioned to represent the one who sent them (apostolos means sent). Paul had already used this term to refer to himself, but in his case it was God who had commissioned him to preach the gospel, not Jesus. This was Paul's way of claiming authority to speak about Jesus Christ despite the fact that he had not been a disciple. He even used the term apostle to refer to Peter, James, and John, thus suggesting to his readers that he and they shared the same level of authorization, as if they also had been commissioned by God. But this assertion turns out to have been a clever strategy on Paul's part (Mack 1988, 113), and the point to be made is that he did not refer to the pillars as disciples. They were, as he put it, "those who were already apostles before me" (Gal. 1:17). This bit of evidence from the 50s is extremely important, for it tells us that the idea of an apostle was rooted in the concept of mission, and that the merger of the ideas of disciple and apostle took place at a later time for other reasons. The idea of an apostle may even have been Paul's own contribution to the early Christian language of leadership, for the term apostle seems to have taken on


    the connotation of a very special authorization, limited just to those who had "seen' the risen lord. By confusing the roles of disciple and apostle, those who had been "with Jesus" and those who had seen the risen lord, a confusion of images that took place during the late first century, even Paul could be numbered among those authorized to guarantee the truth of the gospel. But what, then, about the notion of disciples rooted in the Jesus traditions, those who had only been "with him," for whom there were no stories about seeing the risen lord? In order for them to be imagined as apostles, the narrative gospels would have to include a story of their commission as apostles as well as an account of their "seeing" the risen Christ.

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    church. The Roman church was soon to become the major player as Christians learned to accommodate the Romans and their empire. It needed both Paul and Peter to make sure of its gospel moorings.


    Christian scholars refer to Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus as the pastorals because they offer instruction for the overseers of Christian congregations. In the long course of the history of the Christian church, the Greek term for overseer (episkopos) was transliterated into Vulgar Latin (ebiscopus), Old Saxon (biskop), and Old English (bisceop), eventually becoming bishop, and it was used to refer to the ecclesiastical administrator of a diocese. Since bishops came to be understood as shepherds of their flocks, Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus came to be called "pastoral epistles," and they have taken their place in the Christian imagination as evidence for the early emergence of the episcopal form of church governance. At the time these letters were written, however, episkopos did not have the connotation of shepherd, and the office of an overseer was hardly distinct from that of an elder. Nevertheless, the concern for church order and for defining the duties of an overseer is clearly manifest.

    The three letters were written at different times, undoubtedly during the first half of the second century. They were not included in Marcion's list of Paul's letters (ca. 140 C.E.), nor do they appear in the earliest manuscript collection of Paul's letters (P46, ca. 200 C.E). Quotations first appear in Irenaeus' Against Heresies (180 C.E.), and their content fits nicely into the situation and thought of the church in the mid-second century. Their attribution to Paul is clearly fictional, for their language, style, and thought are thoroughly un-Pauline, and the "personal" references to particular occasions in the lives of Timothy, Titus, and Paul do not fit with reconstructions of that history taken from the authentic letters of Paul. The mention of Crete in Titus (Titus 1:5, 12-13), of Ephesus in 1 Timothy (1 Tim. 1:3), and clues from the later legends about Paul, make an Aegean provenance likely (MacDonald 1983).

    Mythmaking on either flank of the centrist position was apparently proceeding apace. Titus and Timothy are warned against becoming involved in "quarrels about the law" on the one hand (Titus 1:9-16; 1 Tim. 1:4-7), and in the idle talk of ascetics and gnostics on the other (1 Tim. 4:1-3; 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:18). For the author of these letters, conversations with people who did not agree on the "truth" of the gospel "entrusted" to the apostles was dangerous. Titus and Timothy were to stay true to the "sound doctrine" they had received, knowing that the church was the "bulwark of truth" (Titus 1:1-3; 2:1; 1 Tim. 1:10-11; 2:4-5; 3:15). "The mystery of our religion is great," the author wrote, namely that:

    He [Jesus] was revealed in flesh,
      vindicated in spirit,
      seen by angels,


    proclaimed among Gentiles,
    believed in throughout the world,
      taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16)
    Period. That is all anyone need know about Jesus. What this "mystery" meant for persons should also be clear. They should "lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity" (1 Tim. 3:7) and so accept the invitation to "eternal life" offered by the gospel (1 Tim. 6:12, 18-19; 2 Tim. 1:10; Titus 1:1-3). And they should learn to obey the instructions of their overseer! The letters say that Titus and Timothy had been commissioned as overseers of congregations and that Paul was writing to remind them of his instructions to them. But then it appears that just as Paul had been an example for them, they were to be examples for other overseers. These overseers had to be upstanding citizens, "well-thought-of by outsiders," "subject to the kings and authorities," and able to manage their own households (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Tim. 3:1-7). They were also to be charged with managing the congregation just as they managed their own household. Not to be left to their own devices in making judgments about such matters, "Paul" spells out in detail what he expects, demands, allows, and disallows regarding the behavior of overseers, deacons, widows, women, elders, young men, and the slaves in a congregation. Women, for instance, would have to be subject to their husbands, be silent at church, dress modestly, and not wear their hair braided (1 Tim. 2:9-15). There is also instruction for prayers, public reading of the scriptures, enrolling widows on the list of those in need of welfare, teaching, baptism, and the "laying on of hands," a second-century ritual of ordination. Thus the author created a marvelous fiction in order to place a church manual of discipline from the mid-second century at the very beginning of the, apostolic tradition. One wonders whether Paul would have been pleased by this honor.


    The letters attributed to Peter and Jude have been called the catholic epistles (from katholikos, general), because they are addressed to Christians in general, not to a particular congregation. First Peter is addressed to the "exiles of the dispersion"; Jude to "those who are called, who are beloved in God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ"; and 2 Peter to "those who have received a faith as precious as ours." They were written at different times, most likely during the first half of the second century, but they can be discussed together as Petrine because of the pseudonym common to two of them, and because 2 Peter is related to Jude by incorporating almost all of it in its new rendition. Exactly when these letters were written cannot be established. Polycarp refers to 1 Peter in his Letter to the Philippians (135 C.E.), so a date earlier in the second century can be assigned to it. But for Jude, the only clues we have are that it matches


    other early second-century literature and that it was copied by 2 Peter. There is, unfortunately, no reference to 2 Peter in other second-century texts. The first mention of 2 Peter occurs in Origen's Commentary on John from the third century. However, its view of the Christian faith fits well with other Christian literature of the mid-second century, and scholars have traditionally assigned it a date from 124 to 150 C.E. All three letters bear the marks of second-century authorship and erudition: excellent Greek, formal education, facile use of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) and other literature, fully developed christologies, a treatment of the sayings of Jesus as if they were standard, Greek-like maxims, and a view toward the past that is clearly one of distance and leisurely contemplation. A close reading of the three is quite instructive, for they document the rise of the Peter myth at Rome, in the course of which the figure of Peter was thoroughly domesticated for the centrist position to serve as the primary apostle of the Christian gospel of the Roman church.

    I Peter

    One of the more interesting features of 1 Peter is the concept of the Christian church as a network of sister congregations who know their place as "resident aliens" within the social structure of the Roman Empire and think of themselves on the Jewish model of being in exile, or in the diaspora. That is quite a development for a mere one hundred years of social history. The principal worry was no longer how to relate to Pharisees, synagogues, the temple-state, apocalyptic Jesus people, Jewish Christians, mystery cults, or even the Christian gnostics who would soon become the major alternative and threat to the Roman church. The church now had its eye on Rome. First Peter was written from Rome and, though it euphemistically refers to Rome as Babylon in keeping with the exile theme (1 Pet. 5:13), it is already quite clear that the author would like Christians to behave properly in the eyes of the Romans:
    Conduct yourselves honorably among the gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. (1 Pet. 2:12-15)
    A second feature of importance is the way in which the social model of the household was applied to Christian churches. The concept of the household had its roots in antiquity where the landed estate and its complex stratification of family, servants, friends, and peers was the actual form of social organization in the lands around the eastern Mediterranean. During the Greco-Roman period, this form of social organization became a model for societies of many kinds, including the Roman government itself, which was referred to as Caesar's household. Local


    Christian congregations naturally took the form of house-churches and, as we have seen in the pastoral letters of Paul, overseers eventually turned to the very conservative and patriarchal structure of the household as a way to stabilize behavior and control congregational life. At first the move from house-church to household was made by acknowledging the honor due to the elders of a congregation and appropriating the so-called household codes that were common in Greco-Roman society. These codes were based on a widespread cultural definition of honor and shame and were spelled out in a hierarchical ranking of authority. Thus there were certain behavioral requirements for fathers, mothers, children, women, slaves, and friends as they related to one another. In the pastoral letters of Paul, these household codes were set forth as if they were a new instruction. In 1 Peter, however, the household codes seem to be taken for granted as appropriate for Christian ethic. And yet another level of application was also made. The new thought was that the church as a whole should be understood, not only as the family of God (1 Pet. 1:14, 17), a "spiritual house" (temple), or "chosen race" (1 Pet. 2:5-10), all of which were metaphors already in use among Christian congregations since the time of Paul, but as "a holy nation" and as the "household of God" (1 Pet. 2:9; 4:17). What a grandiose idea! Think of the Christian congregation in Rome entertaining such an idea for the Christian churches spread throughout the empire.

    The political implications of this new, universal concept of the church are startling. It defined a social role for Christians who, though resident throughout the empire as "aliens and exiles" (1 Pet. 2:11), making sure of their eventual salvation by preparing for the final judgment (1 Pet. 1:4-7, 17; 4:7, 17-19; 5:4), were nevertheless urged to "honor the emperor," "honor everyone," "conduct yourselves honorably," and "live for the rest of your earthly life... by the will of God," "like obedient children," "in reverent fear during the time of your exile" (1 Pet. 1:14, 17; 2:12, 17; 4:2). With an elder in charge of the local "flock of God," "exercising the oversight" required of such a social ethic (1 Pet. 5:1-2), how alien, do you suppose, was this new nation? And with Peter himself as the first elder (1 Pet. 5:1), writing in this vein from Rome to the churches in Asia Minor (1 Pet. 1:1), it does appear that these exiles and aliens had become quite accustomed to their residence in this world.

    There is one curious embellishment of the Christ myth that deserves notice. If you piece together all of the partial references to the Christ myth in 1 Peter, it is clear that a unified story of the epic-apocalyptic kind had become standard creed. Christ was "destined before the foundation of the world," predicted by the prophets, "revealed at the end of the ages," died an atoning death, was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and was expected to be revealed again, bringing grace and salvation to the believers. All is set forth as doctrine which is taken for granted, including the "expectation" of a coming judgment. But as we have seen, the author was much more interested in the present state of the Christian churches than in the end of the world. His desire to co-opt Peter in order to validate the household concept also betrays a concern for alignment with tradition and the past. These


    interests do not fit with an apocalyptic mentality, and so a new addition to the Christ myth was imagined in order to cut the nerve of a strictly apocalyptic gospel.

    The new addition is the statement that, after Jesus had been put to death and before he had ascended into heaven, he was "made alive in the spirit, in which [spirit] also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison [the dead in hades]" (1 Pet. 3:18-19). This strange image, spelled out in narrative form in another second-century ascription to Peter, the Gospel of Peter, was destined to become mythic dogma. In later Christian rehearsals it became the "descent into hell," which took place on Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In 1 Peter it appears to be a brand new idea, awkwardly attached to the term spirit as that term occurred in opposition to flesh in older formulaic expressions of the Christ myth. The new image solved two conceptual problems, both of which would have arisen in the course of imagining the church as a universal "spiritual house" (1 Pet. 2:5). The first was where to imagine those who had died before Christ appeared, "who in former times did not obey" (1 Pet. 3:20). The second was how to account for a fair last judgment on the part of "him who stands ready to judge [both] the living and the dead" (1 Pet. 4:5; italics mine). The answer in this case was that "the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead" for the reason that "though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does" (1 Pet. 4:6). This comes perilously close to cutting the nerve of an apocalyptic mentality, offering instead a "spiritual salvation" that need not wait until the eschaton to be realized.


    The author calls himself the brother of James, which indicates interest in a particular identification. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing which James is meant. If James the brother of Jesus is meant, Judas would also be a brother of Jesus (Mark: 6:3) as well as Jesus' "servant" (Jude 1). Since that appears to be an odd way to express such a historical imagination, the solution may simply be that the author was, content to allow the multiple associations of both names, Jude as brother and/or disciple of Jesus, and James as the brother and/or disciple of Jesus, to work their, magic without feeling the need to be exact about it. The content suggests second-century authorship.

    The letter is a brief exhortation to stay true to the "faith once for all entrusted to the saints" and to avoid certain people who had "denied our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ," who are "blemishes" on the Christians' "love feasts" and "pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness" (Jude 3-4, 12). Old Testament examples of the judgments that befell those who "indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust" are cited, such as the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, as well as similar lessons from Jewish apocalyptic texts, to underscore the point that the Lord would destroy those who did not keep believing even though they once had been saved. The tenor is morose and the mythology extremely gross, filling a three-decker universe with angels, heavenly hosts, the devil, fallen angels in "eternal chains in deepest


    darkness," scoffers who suffer the same fate, and the fire from which some would have to be snatched if they were going to be saved by Jesus.

    Except for the fact that such a full-blown apocalyptic mythology could be treated as banal in the second-century church, the only interest this letter has, for the historian is the strange historical imagination of the author. Apocalyptic predictions were normally ascribed to figures of the past whose visions of the future were written down to be read by those who found themselves in the midst of the very events predicted. Jude knew this formula by heart, for he referred to an apocalyptic prediction by "Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam" (Jude 14-15) and to one by "the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ" that "in the last time there will be scoffers, indulging their own ungodly lusts" (Jude 17-18). The oddity is that, instead of sticking with the authorial fiction of Jude the brother of James and writing an apocalyptic exhortation against these scoffers from the vantage point of the past, the author could not resist addressing his readers as a contemporary, writing about "the salvation we share" (Jude 3). The author is one who stands with them and looks toward the past and who says that they, his readers, "must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ." He even goes on to say, "For they [the apostles] said to you, `In the last time there will be scoffers" (Jude 17-18). This confusion in the historical placement of the implied author is not due to the difficulty of working with three distinct literary genres (apocalyptic, exhortation, and apostolic pseudonymity). More than one combination of these three genres could be worked out quite easily. And nothing is gained by the confusion of authorial voices. Jude is simply a matter of sloppy literary production.

    2 Peter

    Even after one grows accustomed to the creative borrowing, pseudonymous attribution, and the putting of words into the mouths of fictional characters typical of Greco-Roman literary practice, 2 Peter catches one's attention. In the first place, the letter was obviously written by a well-educated person with more than grammatical facility in the Greek language. Why would such a person have found the Letter of Jude interesting enough to quote parts of it? In the second place, the changes that this person made to Jude's letter did not erase the basic structure of its message, even though the author of 2 Peter was clearly addressing quite a different situation and taking a much cooler approach. And in the third place, if the purpose was to write an exhortation in the name of Peter, why start with a letter already attributed to Jude? It is very hard to imagine the kind of person and the circumstances that would have produced such a text.

    The message of 2 Peter is not much different from that of Jude, the letter that was used as a source. However, some changes made in it deserve attention. The opponents have been specified more clearly, even though labeling continued to be the primary mode of characterization. The opponents now appear to be of a gnostic persuasion that, from the author's point of view, threatened several ideas the author


    found central to Christian faith: the prophetic interpretation of the Jewish scriptures, the gospel story of a real Jesus who was also the son of God, the Christian ethic of sexual continence and clean living (holiness), and the apocalyptic view of history. Some stylistic features of 2 Peter temper Jude's rough priggery, and the mythology is not quite as offensive. As an example, an attempt was made to put a positive construction on Jude's view of judgment. Jude's emphasis was on the Lord's power and willingness to punish by destruction, while 2 Peter says, "The Lord [also] knows how to rescue the godly from trial" (2 Pet. 2:9). The purely apocalyptic framework is also somewhat meliorated, as it was in 1 Peter, by statements about "having everything needed for life and godliness" because of the divine power giver to Christians, escaping "the corruption that is in the world," and becoming "participants of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:3-4). And, of course, the switch from Jude to Peter allowed for the introduction of a number of legendary touches that make the letter a bit more interesting for the historical imagination.

    These legendary touches are of the "I, Peter..." variety, and they are in some ways quite charming, enough so to forgive the author for the other absurdities. Al this point it becomes clear that the author knew the gospel traditions about Peter including the Peter of the Gospel of John, and that he wanted his readers to think of that Peter when reading his letter. "Peter" knows that he is only reminding his readers of things they already know, that his death is approaching, just as the lord Jesus Christ made clear to him (John 21:18-19), and that he is writing the letter "so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things" (2 Pet, 1:12-15). "These things" refers to the instructions in the letter but includes references to Peter's own experiences with Jesus. Peter's account of one of these experiences, his presence at the transfiguration, is the most remarkable feature of the letter. Peter slips into the first person plural to acknowledge that he was there with James and John, and he recalls that they saw Jesus' divinity and heard God's voice, calling Jesus his son. That, Peter says, confirmed the message of the prophets (2 Pet; 1:16-19) and should keep the Christian reader on the right track in the face of scoffers who deny the apocalyptic gospel (2 Pet. 1:19; 3:1-4).

    This was a very clever stratagem for recasting Peter as an apostolic authority for the centrist gospel. With two deft strokes, the Peter of the gospels comes to speech and confirms that he "saw" the divinity of Jesus, both at the transfiguration and after the resurrection! Paul could not have been more pleased with Peter's agreement with the Christ myth, though this confession was belated by more than one hundred years. And, as if the author knew that the centrist position would require some mutual accommodations between the Pauline legacy and the aura of a Jewish Jesus movement that hovered around the figure of Peter, what does he have Peter say about Paul? Speaking about the need to be patient while waiting for salvation to come and the need to lead lives of holiness and godliness, the author has Peter say, "So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters" (2 Pet. 3:15-16). So, not to worry. With Peter and Paul in agreement on the gospel, surely the scoffers are wrong.


    But the infelicity of Jude's fiction, though more charmingly put in 2 Peter, was not overcome. Not only does the "historical" Peter know about all Paul's letters, he writes to his second-century readers as if he is one of them, one of "those who have received a faith as precious as ours" (2 Pet. 1:1). He says, "This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you; in them I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles" (2 Pet. 3:1-2). So Peter is an apostle writing to remind his readers that they should remember the words of the apostles! The fiction should be clear.

    Need I remind the reader of Peter's importance for the traditional view of Christianity's arrival in Rome? According to this view, Peter was the first disciple to see the risen Jesus, the founder and leader of the first church at Jerusalem, and the apostle who first took the gospel to Rome. Since the documentation for this tradition has always been these letters, it should be clear that the tradition is in reality a myth. The so-called Petrine tradition was created in the second century by means of pseudonymous writings attributed to the Peter pictured in Paul's letters and in the narrative gospels. There is not a shred of historical evidence to support it.


    The Letter of James is another interesting piece of the New Testament puzzle. It consists entirely of moral exhortation in the genre of proverbs, maxims, and ethical imperatives. There is no indication of interest in or concern about getting the Christ myth straight or the narrative gospels in hand. The "Lord Jesus Christ" is mentioned twice, the "coming of the Lord" is in view as a warning at the end of the letter, and the assumption of Christian congregations being "the twelve tribes in the diaspora" is evident. These communities can be addressed as "brothers and sisters," and they have "teachers" among them (James 3:1). But the teaching of the letter is not about the Christian faith. It is about the importance of living a moral life, and the arguments for doing so are set forth as common wisdom. The source and authority of this wisdom are taken for granted by the author. Sayings that remind one of the teachings of Jesus are interspersed with proverbs and imperatives typical of the Jewish wisdom tradition. Greek-style maxims, examples, and small rhetorical units carefully crafted in the style of the Hellenistic art of persuasion also abound. The sayings reminiscent of the teachings of Jesus are not given special privilege and are not even attributed to him as their author or authority. The voice throughout is rather that of the author, and the authority to which he appeals is the wisdom common to ancient Near Eastern ethical instruction.

    If there is any other authority to which the author appeals, it is "the perfect law, the law of liberty" or "the royal law according to the scripture" (James 1:25; 2:8-12). This must refer to the Jewish scriptures understood as instruction in wisdom for living a godly life. We know that such a concept was possible in Jewish-Christian circles of the late first century, because Matthew reconceived the Torah by


    interpreting it in the light of Q or even by taking Q as the true meaning of the Torah. It does appear, then, that the Letter of James represents the thought of a Jewish Jesus movement that had come to see itself as Christian in much the same way as the Matthean community had done. The big difference between the Letter of James and the Gospel of Matthew is that James did not need the authority of Jesus to undergird his Torah instruction, even though it contained teachings that Matthew wanted to hear only from the mouth of Jesus. Instead, James says, "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you" (James 1:5). What James and his community thought about the "Lord Jesus Christ" is therefore very uncertain. The real "lord" for these people was not Jesus but the God of the Israel epic. As James puts it, "Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?.... Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,' and he was called the friend of God" (James 2:21-23).

    The Letter of James has been difficult for scholars to place within the various Jesus and Christ traditions of the first and second centuries. There are two reasons for this. One is that the Letter of James seems to have been difficult to place for early Christians as well. It apparently was not read or even noticed by authors in the centrist tradition before Origen in the third century. The other reason is that James sounds like a treatise written against the Pauline notion that the Christian faith opposed the "works of the law." James 2:14-16 is a famous tirade against such an idea, arguing for the insight that "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (James 2:17). How could Christians in the Pauline and centrist traditions have thought that way or accepted a letter that said that? Or so New Testament scholars have wondered. The answer is that Pauline Christians were not the only Christians during the firs century, and that centrist Christians of the next two centuries did accommodate the kind of thinking represented by James. Two observations indicate that the Letter of James represents a Jewish-Christian movement that must have been strong and vigorous for at least the first three centuries.

    One observation is that, in the course of the first three centuries, the authority of "James," whether in reference to the brother of Jesus or one of his disciples (or both), was attached to a number of Christian writings. He may have become a guarantor for some gnostic groups as well. We have, in any case, an Apocryphon of James, a Protevangelium of James, and an Acts of James. There is also an intriguing reference to James in the Gospel of Thomas to the effect that, when the disciples, asked Jesus who would be their leader after his departure, he said they were to "go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being" (GTh 12). Literary evidence of this kind usually means that some group, movement, or school tradition claimed James as the source of their teachings.

    The other observation is that the Letter of James was included in the lists of texts that eventually became the New Testament. As we shall see in chapter 11, this indicates


    an interest in making a place for Jewish Christianity within the spectrum of traditions acceptable to leaders of the church in the fourth century. By itself, the apostolic Letter of James may not have been any more acceptable than the Gospel of Thomas. But it was easier to read in the light of the gospel tradition of Matthew and the instructional literature of the so-called postapostolic period, such as 1 Clement and the Didache. This literature shows that the centrist position turned to Hellenistic Jewish ethical codes in order to spell out appropriate behavior for Christians. We shall discuss this development in the next chapter. As 1 Clement and the Didache show, the resources for manuals of instruction now included the Jewish scriptures, wisdom traditions common to the cultures of the Greco-Roman age, Hellenistic ethical codes, traditional practices that had arisen in the churches, and the judgments of the bishops themselves. The Letter of James does not look so strange when read in the company of that kind of literature. It was, at any rate, an instructional exhortation with which the bishops could be comfortable, and to regard it as an apostolic letter was a sure way to appropriate the authority of James for the church instead of losing him to other groups who would not fit under the centrist umbrella.


    The story behind the three letters of John shares more features with the history of the letters of Paul than with those of Peter, James, or Jude. The similarities are that both sets of letters were written from within a self-conscious community that had already produced written material to which the letters could refer. In each case as well, the vibrancy of the community tradition is demonstrated in the way debates, polemics, and changes of ideology mark the course of their histories. Nothing of the sort is evident in the apostolic letters of Peter, Jude, and James.

    However, there are significant differences between the Pauline and the Johan-nine traditions. One is that Paul's legacy was a school tradition for supervising networks of Christian congregations that were able to harbor differences of opinion and vigorous ideological debates. The community that produced the letters of John was close-knit, more prone to ideological schism. Another difference is that the Pauline school harked back to a real, historical founder figure (Paul) whose activities and writings brought the school into existence. In the case of the so-called Johannine community, Jesus was the only founder figure (not John or any other disciple). Written material and patterns of community practice had been produced collectively and anonymously under the "signature" of the first person plural "we," a curious feature of both the gospel and the first letter. This feature has caused no end of trouble for scholars in quest of the author or voice behind this literature. As noted in regard to the gospel, the name of John the disciple does not even occur in any of the writings that were eventually attributed to him. And the earliest attestation for such attribution is Irenaeus, writing about 180 C.E. By that time, however, the same


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    PART 3          

    History and the Christian Myth          






    Christians imagine the disciples as apostles whenever they picture the way Christ ianity began. It is as important for the disciples to be apostles as it is for Jesus to be the Christ. Without the apostles, the story of Jesus would recede into the past like a tale told once upon a time without effect in shaping social history. It is the apostles who anchor the story of Jesus in time, attest that it all really happened, and create the impression that history changed then. The apostles are the eyewitnesses of the story of Jesus from beginning to end, the first proclaimers of the story as a gospel or message, the missionaries who took the gospel message to all the other lands and peoples, and those who wrote the New Testament. The apostles are also the first leaders of the congregations of believers that formed in response to their preaching, founding churches and filling in the first chapter of Christian history with their deeds. Without the apostles, the Christian church would not know how to connect its history with Jesus. The apostles are the church's guarantee that, as a social, historical institution of religion, it started right and has its story straight.

    Not every Jesus movement, Christ cult, or Christian gnostic community needed the fiction of twelve disciples who became apostles. The fiction resulted from early Christian mythmaking among intellectuals with centrist inclinations and institutional tendencies. And it did not happen overnight. As we have already seen in the last chapter, calling the disciples apostles was one thing, lining them up with particular traditions another, and getting them to agree on fundamental issues yet another. That the apostles agreed would have been as unthinkable at the beginning of the second century as agreement among the many different Christ cults and Jesus movements of the time. Vociferous debate is much too tame a label for the hostile polemics and rhetorical entrenchments that characterized inner-Christian discourse (luring the second century. And yet, agreement among the apostles is exactly what the author of the Acts of the Apostles set out to show. He wanted to do that in order to demonstrate the apostolic foundations for his own conception of Christianity as a religion of the empire and for the empire centered at Rome. He did it, and his


    achievement was nothing less than the creation of a basic building block in the formation of the Christian epic.

    In retrospect, the author of Acts created the notions of an apostolic council and an apostolic age. This was a period of time like none that had gone before and unlike any that would ever come again. Only the apostles had been with Jesus, and only the apostles could witness to the truth of the gospel. As for the elders, overseers, and bishops that later found themselves in charge of the churches, what did they know that they had not received from the apostles? With the Acts of the Apostles in place, however, they could be sure that the Christian churches throughout the Roman Empire were exactly what Jesus and his apostles had intended. The apostolic age was the golden link that guaranteed a direct line of tradition from Jesus to the churches, especially those churches that recognized the special privilege granted to the congregation at Rome. Thus, the Acts of the Apostles was as important a literary accomplishment for emergent Christianity in the early second century as the Gospel of Mark was in the first.

    Unfortunately, the retrospective view glosses over the tumultuous history of the second century, just as Luke's gospel and Acts smooth out the rough edges of the first. We cannot be sure that it was Luke's literary achievement alone that created the historical imagination of an apostolic age for his contemporaries, or even whether his treatment of the apostles affected any of the other apostolic fictions produced during this century. But we can be sure that Luke's Acts of the Apostles fits very well into the mythmaking of the second century and that it does stand out as an early work of genius. If we use it as a guide to the significance of the apostles for second-century Christian thought, it will be possible to organize a large literature for discussion. The Acts of the Apostles marks the shift in focus for second-century mythmaking, away from Jesus and toward the apostles.

    Jesus was not dislodged from his place as the primary figure of the Christian gospel, but the apostles were now attracting all the attention. Fascination with the apostles produced stories written about them and literature (purportedly) written by them. Quite naturally, the genres that prevailed were the acts of the apostles, instructions from the apostles, gospels written by the apostles, apostolic letters, and apocalypses. But that is not all. Early Christian authors writing in their own name had to appeal to apostolic tradition, and schools of thought, especially in gnostic circles, had to struggle with the apostolic myth in order to posit the moment when their special teaching was revealed to the world. The emergence of the apostolic myth changed the early Christian imagination of history forever. Not just Jesus, not just his teachings, not just his place in the history of Israel, but the apostles also would have to be in the story as those who received the message, packaged it, and passed it on to later generations. It was the apostolic myth that locked subsequent Christian imagination into the odd persuasion that, for Christians, truth was dependent upon the eyewitness accounts of a past and privileged class of disciples who had personally encountered the divine.


    And then something interesting happened. The apostles started to look a lot like Jesus. They were imagined to have performed miracles as he did, preached and taught as he did, confronted the authorities as he did, and died as he did. It was as if the apostles replicated the gospel story of appearing in the world endowed with divine spirit and power. Their preachments caused considerable consternation. Some were converted, others took offense. And in the end the apostles died a martyr's death. Only in the case of John was a martyr's death impossible to imagine, for part of the lore that accompanied the collection of literature attributed to him was that he had died a natural death as an aged man in Ephesus. For the others, a martyr's death was the natural way to end their stories. There was early lore about the martyrdoms of Paul, Peter, and James, but eventually all of the storied apostles were granted a glorious death, including Paul, Peter, Andrew, Thomas, Matthew, Bartholomew, and Philip. This can be understood if we keep in mind the Greek educational model of following or imitating an example. The apostles were cast as the exemplary students of Jesus. And now there were many worthy models in view. Just as Jesus became the example to be followed by his disciples, so the apostles became examples to be followed by other Christians. That is because disciples or students were supposed to be followers of their teachers. Thus Jesus' way to death as a martyr was exemplified in the stories of the apostles, and they became the models for being a true follower of the Christian way.

    In gnostic circles, the apostolic myth was used to support claims to esoteric teaching rather than martyrological instructions. The link between Jesus and a particular apostle was storied in the interest of claiming a special revelation from Jesus to account for the special knowledge in the tradition of a particular gnostic school, as if the apostle had passed it on. In the Gospel of Thomas, as we have seen, Jesus took Thomas aside and told him what the other disciples were not able to comprehend (GTh 13). Such scenes became standard in gnostic texts and were frequently specified as postresurrection appearances. Eventually, however, neither the scene nor the apostle to whom the special revelation was given was considered all that important. It was the content of the revelation that interested gnostics and, since the content was a revelation, Jesus came to be seen as the accidental incarnation of the eternally divine revealer. Thus the preferred mythology was the visit of a god from the realms of light to any appropriate guarantor. The Christian apostles were not the only guarantors for such a revelation. Jesus, John, Thomas, and Philip were soon joined by Adam, Seth, Sophia, and the various leaders of gnostic schools of thought, such as Basilides, Valentinus, and Ptolemy. Thus the gnostic notions of truth and revelation seriously challenged the apostolic myth.

    Those of the centrist traditions had to counter this gnosticizing tendency. They did so by writing treatises against the gnostic "heresies," appealing to the "historical" Jesus of the gospels, and working hard to appropriate as many of the apostles as they could for their "orthodox" Christian teaching. They did this by writing gospels, letters, sermons, and instructions in the apostles' names. One of the more


    curious literary phenomena of this period is the appearance of manuals of instruction for church practice in the name of all twelve apostles as a college. Again, Luke seems to have set the pace with his story of the twelve apostles at Pentecost, the birthday of the church. If all of them agreed on what to preach and teach, so the thinking seems to have been, teachings and revelations that diverged from the norm must be mistaken. Luckily for the church, what the apostles agreed upon was known to the bishops and firmly in their hands. And so the story comes full circle, the making of a myth to authorize the makers of the myth -- leaders of an emerging institution with claims to historical precedence and presence. Poor bishops, having to appeal to the apostles for their authority. Do they ever get to sign their own names? Of course they do, but only if they are careful not to claim authority based upon a private revelation.


    The Acts of the Apostles was a work of absolute genius. It was written late in the first quarter of the second century by a highly educated Hellenistic Christian living somewhere around the Aegean Sea. The author was well read in Greek historiography and other, more popular types of literature, such as the novel and the lives of famous men, for he used the techniques peculiar to each of them with skill. He also had copies of first-century texts from the Jesus movements, such as the Gospel of Mark and the Sayings Gospel Q, which he cleverly merged and embellished to serve his own purposes in a new rendition of the gospel story. Since he knew about Paul, Peter, James, and other early Christian leaders, as well as about the spread of Christian congregations throughout Asia Minor and the history of tensions between Christians and Jews in the diaspora, we may assume that he knew about the letters of Paul and had collected other early Christian literature and lore. His plan was to write a history of the Christian movement from the formation of the apostles as a college of twelve in Jerusalem shortly after the death of Jesus to its arrival in Rome in the person of Paul, a period of approximately thirty years. Considering his vantage point in 120 C.E. and keeping in mind all the intervening history and competing traditions that must have been known to this author, his decision to focus on Peter and Paul as the major figures of the apostolic period is telling. The author, whom I will call Luke, in keeping with the tradition of attribution, was obviously committed to the centrist persuasion.

    The history begins with a remarkable series of events that take place during the forty days between Passover and Pentecost. These are the festival events that marked the calendar of the Jewish culture destined to be transformed and superseded by the birthday of the church. As Jesus had commanded the disciples before his departure at the end of Luke's gospel, the disciples regroup in Jerusalem, elect Matthias to take the place of Judas, and so constitute themselves as the council of twelve apostles to wait for the spirit Jesus had promised. On the day of Pentecost


    the spirit comes upon them in the shape of fiery tongues, and the famous story is told of all the apostles speaking in foreign languages to the Jews from every land who had come to Jerusalem for the festival. The story does not explain why the Greek language would not have been sufficient, but it does set the stage for the theme of preaching and the conversion of large numbers of people. Then the focus falls on Peter who delivers the Pentecost sermon and plays the role of major agent and spokesman for a series of events that take place in Jerusalem. Each of these events is about the furor Christians are creating among Jews in Jerusalem, and each ends with Peter preaching, first at the temple (Acts 3:12-26), then before the Jewish rulers (Acts 4:9-12), and finally before the council of the high priest (Acts 5:29-32).

    At this point, the conversion of the "Hellenists" has been so successful that the apostles have to ordain seven of them as a special committee to "wait on tables," a curious twist that reveals the author's desire to see table fellowship as practiced in his time established as a Christian practice at the beginning of the church's history. Stephen immediately runs into trouble with leaders of the diaspora synagogues who seize him, take him before the high priest's council, and see that he is stoned to death. So Stephen, representing Hellenistic Christianity, is the first martyr for the church, according to Luke. On the occasion of his martyrdom Stephen delivers a lengthy sermon to the effect that throughout their history the Jews had always opposed the holy spirit and rejected the prophets and leaders God sent to them, just as they were now rejecting Jesus, the "righteous one." And, one might add, just as they were now stoning Stephen to death (Acts 6-7). Thus "the persecution" begins (Acts 8:1; 11:19). The drama then spreads outward to Samaria and Gaza, and Saul, who "approved of their killing him," referring to Stephen, and was "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord," enters the story (Acts 8:1; 9:1). "Unclean spirits" (Acts 8:7) also enter the story, as well as Simon the magician -- all indicative of the resistance that Christians would have to face. But the apostles prevail. Philip is successful in his evangelization of Samaria and Gaza, Saul is converted on the road to Damascus, and Peter moves out to perform miracles and preach in Samaria (Acts 8-9). At Caesarea, Peter has to deal with the conversion of a Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius and learns via a vision that gentiles are not to be excluded from the church, that they may receive the holy spirit and be baptized without being circumcised (Acts 10-11). This is a major turning point in the story, for now we learn that Christianity had already spread to Phoenicia, Cyprus, Antioch, and Cyrene, and that Antioch would be the city to organize the gentile mission (Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-3).

    From chapter 13 until the end of the book, the star of the story is the apostle Paul. He makes three missionary journeys to Asia Minor and Greece, each time returning to Antioch to report his success, before he is set upon by angry "Jews from Asia who had seen him in the temple" (Acts 21:27; 24:19), arrested by the Roman authorities, and taken to Rome for trial. One of these reports to the "church and the apostles and elders" in Jerusalem is the account of the famous "apostolic council" at


    which both Peter and James defend Paul's mission to the gentiles against the demand of some Christian Pharisees that gentiles be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. That Peter and James defend Paul's mission is a marvelous piece of fiction, for every earlier scrap of evidence speaks to the contrary. Luke goes so far as to have Peter take credit for the very idea of gentile Christianity and imagines James citing the scriptures in support of the idea. Peter says, "My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the gentiles would hear the message of good news and become believers" (Acts 15:7, 13-21). Thus the author's strategy is clear. Even Peter and company learned, though God and the holy spirit certainly had to work very hard at this educational task, that the Christian message of salvation was intended for the gentiles from the very first outpouring of the spirit.

    Thus the story of the apostles is the story of the spread of the Christian religion throughout the Roman Empire from Jerusalem to Rome. It was also the story of the struggle to wrest the Christian religion away from its Jewish origins and the bad press of civil disobedience that clung to its early history. Luke wanted Christianity to be recognized as a religion that was good for the Roman order and thus worthy of Roman support. Though the "good news" is the same from Peter's first sermon at Pentecost to Paul's final sermon before the leaders of the Jews at Rome (Acts 28:17-28), the tone of the speeches shifts as the story moves away from the earlier sermons addressed to the Jews, through the missionary sermons of Paul where the gospel is preached to the gentiles, to climax in several lengthy speeches in which Paul defends himself before the Roman governors Felix (Acts 24:10-21), Festus (Act 25:8-11), and Agrippa (Acts 26:2-29). In these defenses the author's concept of 'I Christianity as a cultural force for producing good citizens comes to expression. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles were apologists for a civil religion!

    The achievement of this fiction, a fiction so well done that it has been read as factual history for nearly two thousand years (Cameron 1994), is marked by great erudition and extremely clever design. What the author had to work with were the standard conventions for composing speeches-in-character, plotting novels, arranging anecdotes for the construction of a famous person's "life," crafting scenes for the miracles and sayings performed by the divine man, and for writing history as an etiology and encomium of some social institution. The history of scholarship on this book is rich in studies that demonstrate the author's knowledge of these literary conventions and his skill in using their techniques. Combining features from each of these literary conventions, he succeeded in describing situations in such a matter-of-fact way, and in providing such innocent and graphic details to his scenes, that the sense of being an eyewitness to the events is very strong. It is so strong, in fact, that the author himself has often been detected lurking behind the famous "we" passages that begin in chapter 16, as if the author had actually been a companion of Paul's on his second and third journeys (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). Even after one sees that the "we" passages are limited to the journeys


    in which travel is by sea, and learns that the author was merely following a normal convention for just such description, as Vernon Robbins has taught us (1978), the impression is still strong that the author knew what he knew because he had been there. That is great writing. It is also marvelous fiction. The author could not have been present at the events he describes, except, of course, in the sense of being fully preoccupied with the history he was imagining. It is very important to see that this author was not violating normal conventions of historiography when he invented the history of the apostolic church.

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    Thus, when the holy spirit "fell" upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost, it meant that they were given their place as the leaders of the people, chosen by God at a significant turn in history, just as all the prophets were, to call the people to repentance and instruct them in righteousness. What happens again and again in this sweep of history is the appearance of the prophet-teacher to call the people to repentance and instruct them in righteousness. As Robert Miller has taught us (1986), each appearance of the prophet-teacher is linked to previous appearances of prophet-teachers by means of reminders. This makes the succession of exemplary leaders interlocking. Each refers to those before in order to make the point that the righteousness called for is nothing new. The history common to Christianity and Judaism was a recursive pattern of ethical instruction and conviction. There was always resistance to God's call for righteousness, but even if a prophet was rejected and killed, it was not the end of the story. It did not mean that the people were evil. It did not mean they could not repent. It did not mean that God would give up in his quest to instruct the people in righteousness. Thus an essential part of the sermons in Acts was always a lesson from history. The apostle would say, in effect, "Look, there have always been prophets, and the prophets have always sounded the same message. God's standards have not changed." And though both the story of Israel and the story of early Christianity had to make room for the rejection of God's messengers, Luke never explained the motivations for such rejection, nor could h without destroying his fiction of continuity. That is why the call to repentance at the end of the sermons preached to the Jews sounds so hollow as history but somehow rings true to the epic Luke portrayed. Rejection was simply a fact of Luke's recurrent scenario. It was unfortunate and not without consequence for redirecting the thrust of history. But it could not threaten the eventual success of God's great plan to educate the nations in virtues fit for social well-being.

    Luke's conception of Christianity was very Greek and quite blase despite the highly mythological language of the holy spirit as the divine agent in history, the fantastic portrayal of the acts of the apostles, and the dramatic intention of the sermons. As a matter of fact, he may have overplayed his hand, for the story of the apostles is so theatrical that alignment with the history of the prophets, or even with the appearance of Jesus, is frequently obscured by the novelty of the apostolic events. But that is the price he had to pay for his fiction of continuity in the interest of rationalizing a drastic change in the course of his epic history. What he achieved was a thoroughly Hellenistic twist to most of the mythological figures and patterns derived from the Jewish scriptures and early Christian thinking. The influence of Greek thought can be detected in the notion of historical continuity, the sequential arrangement of epochs to account for historical change, the notion of change as a shift in social circumstance or an expansion of horizon, and in his way of tracing continuity through a series of exemplary leaders, treating prophets as sages and teachers, using the language of spirit mainly to mark rhetorical moments, and equating righteousness with virtue. The final effect is that, though Jesus stands out


    as a remarkable moment in the expansion of the spirit's horizon, Jesus did nothing to change the essential human situation. What it meant to be wise and righteous had not changed, according to Luke, just the size of the classroom.

    As the story of the apostles comes to its close, the simplicity of Luke's conception of Christianity becomes more and more obvious. The spotlight falls on Paul whose missionary journeys, sermons, and speeches chart the course Christianity has taken. There are four stages, each characterized by a different audience whom Paul addresses. At Antioch in Pisidia, Paul is pictured in the synagogue giving the standard sermon to the Jews (Acts 13:16-41). Later, on the Areopagus in Athens, Paul preaches to the Greeks about coming to know the unknown God (Acts 17:22-31). Later still, at Miletus, Paul speaks to the elders of the Christian congregation from Ephesus (Acts 20:18-35). It is at this point that the careful reader begins to see features of Luke's own situation reflected in apostolic history. Paul reminds the elders of his exemplary life and ministry, knows already that he will be imprisoned and persecuted in Jerusalem, and instructs them, "Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son" (Acts 20:28). He even knows what will happen to the church after he is gone: "I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them" (Acts 20:29-30). He then commends them to God, and the elders weep at his departure. All of this is reminiscent of second-century Christianity; none rings true to the Paul of the 50s. It was Luke's way of forging the link to the next chapter of church history, the time of the elders, overseers, shepherds, and bishops.

    At last the story puts Paul in the presence of the Roman tribunes, governors, and kings of Palestine, and his speeches in defense of his own life and Christian mission gave Luke a remarkable opportunity to summarize what he thought about the "truth" of the Christians' good news (Acts 22-26). In these speeches Paul rehearses the event of his conversion twice, and biblical scholars have often thought that the account of his conversion was the point of the speeches. This overlooks the fact that Luke's point was to position Paul clearly as a Christian, distance him from Jews who made trouble for the Romans, and depict him as a loyal citizen, one whose exemplary life and character were no threat to the peace and order of Roman society. Paul is uncommonly courteous before these rulers, and they are extremely respectful of Paul and his views. The tribune rescues Paul from the angry Jews and gives Paul a guard to protect him on his transfer to Felix the governor (Acts 21:31-23:30). Felix and his successor Festus are caught in a political bind, wanting to pacify the Jews but not harm Paul. They keep him safe, provide for his needs, and agree with his desire to be tried before the emperor at Rome (Acts 23:31-25:22). From Luke's point of view, that was extremely gracious behavior on the part of Roman rulers toward a Christian. And King Agrippa tells Festus, "This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor," a precedent for the kind of judicious decision


    that Luke was hoping for in his own time (Acts 26:32). And there, right in the midst of this series of judicial hearings, Luke quietly inserted a line that contained his own view of the Christian faith. Felix and his wife Drusilla, a Jewess, had sent for Paul to hear him "speak concerning faith in Christ Jesus." Normally, the reader would expect Luke to let Paul come to speech in his own words. In this case, however, Luke summarized Paul's sermon in the third person by saying that "he discussed justice, self-control, and the coming judgment" (Acts 24:25). This is t remarkable sleight of hand, a crisp, momentary intrusion of the author's own face in the story he wrote about Paul, a cleverness that Alfred Hitchcock would surely appreciate. Self-control was the bottom line for Luke, the most prized virtue and most discussed issue among philosophers of the Greco-Roman age. He framed it with justice and judgment, fundamental themes guiding the epic history he had just written for the Christian churches. If God's instruction in righteousness centered on self-control, and God's messenger was capable of discussing justice and judgment with Roman governors, why of course the church's destiny had to be Rome. Sooner or later, the Romans surely would realize just how good Christians could be for the welfare of the empire.

    What happened in this shift away from Jesus and toward the apostles is that the gospel story was reduced to a creed and the sign of apostolic authority became the rehearsal of that creed. Apostolic authority supported a distinctive social institution called the church, and the church now had its myth in place: its own founder-teacher, its own divine lord, its own apostles, its own officers and leaders, its own rituals, its own set of practices, and its own body of instructions. Luke's reduction of the "faith in Christ Jesus" to a creedal religion for the inculcation of self-control fits well with other second-century references to the "truth," the "word," the "gospel," the "tradition," or the "faith." All these shorthand cliches referred to the Christ myth and treated it as a symbol for a large cluster of parochial instructions. In this shift, the earlier, first-century myths about Jesus were emptied of their complexity and mythic power to become formulaic statements of faith that signaled one's acceptance of the Christian way.

    Then the apostolic myth also suffered demotion. The genre of the acts of the. apostles soon lost its orientation to serious epic mythmaking and became a kind of entertainment literature. Puppetlike, the apostles began to pop up here and there in episode after episode in early Christian apocryphal literature to confront the bad guys and their demons, wow the credulous maidens with their miracles, and champion the Christian religion with their amazing rhetorical powers. Not many modern readers have found this literature entertaining. The overbearing presence of a miracle-working apostle who sternly reprimands licentiousness and demands ascetic virtue of his converts does not make captivating reading. However, these legendary figures were the only heroes the average Christian had, and the popularity of their stories, which continued to be created into the fifth and sixth centuries, indicates a kind of curiosity and attraction of the kind that we associate with cults of celebrated


    personalities. The bishops apparently did not object to this literature, for they themselves were eventually graced with similar legends. But for the practical purposes of congregational leadership, the bishops needed more from the apostles than stories of their escapades. They needed to have their instructions in writing.


    In 1875 a text was discovered in the Patriarchal library of Jerusalem located at Constantinople. It bore the title Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, a document that was cited in early Christian literature but thought to have been lost or merged with other, later texts. These later texts were known as the Apostolic Constitutions and Church Ordinances. They were compendia of prayers, hymns, rituals, and rules for administering Christian congregations accumulated during subsequent centuries. Some features of the Didache bore striking resemblance to 1 and 2 Clement, letters attributed to an early bishop of Rome, copies of which also appeared with the Didache in the discovered manuscript. There were parallels between the Didache and parts of the Epistle of Barnabas as well. These texts, along with others from the large body of literature known as the apocryphal New Testament, such as the Epistula Apostolorum (Letter from the Apostles), document the importance of apostolic instructions for the early church. The Didache seems to be the earliest text of this type, probably written early in the second century, and so it can be used to explain the emergence of the genre.

    The Didache is now included in a small modern collection of early Christian texts that scholars call the Apostolic Fathers. This is literature thought to have been written by those who knew the apostles personally. Since the Didache does not have a signature, allowing the reader to think that it was written by the twelve apostles, it does not fit the rubric of "apostolic father." However, that lack of fit is the very feature that makes the Didache so important for our project. In distinction from the letters of I Clement and Ignatius which circulated under their own names (to be discussed in the next section), the Didache was probably compiled anonymously. It was a manual of instruction for a network of congregations, and the instructions were obviously taken from the teachings, views, and practices of those congregations. Naturally, the manual was composed with more than a little help from their overseers. It is therefore a very important document, for it lets us in on the kind of instructional literature written by overseers and eventually attributed to the apostles. It thus fills a niche in the early history of the emerging apostolic myth, a period during which acts of the apostles and letters from the apostles were being written but before it was thought necessary to spell out their instructions. It was written during a period of transition, when the question of authority to offer instruction to the churches was not yet critical. There is no mention of the apostles within the work and no internal evidence that the author thought it necessary to appeal to "the twelve apostles" as the source for his own authority. Thus the title must have been appended at a later time.


    The Didache is a brief compendium of instructions, about the size of Q, the Gospel of Thomas, or the book of James. It begins with ethical instructions about the "two ways, one of life and one of death." The way of life is summed up in the commandments to love God and neighbor, elaborated in a series of "Thou shafts" and "Thou shalt nots" that cite some teachings of Jesus but go on to outline a rather extensive early Christian code of behavior. It touches upon matters such as giving and receiving alms, procuring abortion, the use of magic, pride, lust, obedience to one's masters and to the commandments of the lord, and so on. The way of death is described in a catalogue of vices and wicked practices. This takes up six of the sixteen chapters into which scholars have divided the text. Then follow succinct instructions on how to perform baptism, when and how to fast (on Wednesdays and Fridays, not on Mondays and Thursdays as "the hypocrites" do), when to say the "Our father" (three times a day), prayers for the meal of thanksgiving or eucharist, the treatment of itinerant prophets, the appointment of overseers and deacons to and by local congregations, and the command to ban with silence a member of the congregation who has "done a wrong to his neighbor" (Did. 15:3). The instructions end with a reminder of the coming judgment and a warning that one must "be found perfect at the last time" (Did. 16:2).

    There are several interesting features of this manual of instruction. One is an overriding concern with the practice of alms, gift giving, and the support of dependents, itinerant teachers, and others who may ask for a handout. Generosity was obviously thought to be a prime Christian virtue, but in practice one had to be careful, for others could easily take advantage of the Christian. This was especially the case with "false" prophets who showed up and wanted the congregation to feed them. The instruction was not to "receive" any prophet who asked for food or money while speaking "in a spirit" (Did. 11:12), and not to allow any "true" prophet (who did not do that) to stay longer than two or three days unless he was willing to settle down, learn a craft, and "work for his bread" (Did. 12:2-5). It is obvious that the Didache was written with resident congregations in mind and that their overseers and deacons had grown weary of the hype and hoopla characteristic of an earlier period of itinerant, charismatic leadership. They no longer needed the showmanship of itinerant teachers and preachers. The pattern of congregational life over which they presided was sufficient. They had gotten together and agreed upon the practices, prayers, and rituals that defined the Christian way.

    The prayers of thanksgiving (eucharist) for the community meal in chapters 9 and 10 are also significant. That is because they do not contain any reference to the death of Jesus. Accustomed as we are to the memorial supper of the Christ cult and the stories of the last supper in the synoptic gospels, it has been very difficult to imagine early Christians taking meals together for any reason other than to celebrate the death of Jesus according to the Christ myth. But here in the Didache a very formalistic set of prayers is assigned to the cup and the breaking of bread without the slightest association with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The prayers of


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    The term apostolic fathers is a seventeenth-century scholarly designation for a small group of writings believed to have been written by bishops and others who had known the apostles personally. The corpus consists of two letters attributed to Clement of Rome; seven letters of Ignatius, an early overseer of the congregation at Antioch; the Didache; a letter attributed to Barnabas, held to be Paul's companion; an apocalyptic vision written by a certain Hermas, about whom little else is known, revealed to him by an angel who appears as a shepherd and so named the Shepherd of Hernias; an account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, an overseer at Smyrna thought to have known the "apostle" John; a letter of Polycarp; and the Epistle to Diognetus, an anonymous writing of uncertain date. The selection of these early Christian texts was meant to supply the necessary link in a literary history that ran from the writings of the apostles contained in the New Testament, through the apostolic fathers, to the later literature of the so-called patristic period in which the "fathers" of the church, beginning with Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, developed their full-blown theological systems.

    Critical scholars no longer think that any of these texts were written by authors who personally knew any of the disciples, or "apostles," of Jesus. And the assumed three-stage outline of early Christianity is now fully discredited. At each stage of this scheme there is not only a frustrating overlap in the chronology of the texts assigned to each, but a selection of texts that leaves out a great deal of literature that does not fit the pattern. The imagined pattern is that of a single-line development of orthodox Christianity in which each subsequent stage merely elaborates further a common core gospel. But even the small collection of texts known as the apostolic fathers, a collection meant to document the orthodox transmission of the gospel in contrast to all the other mistaken interpretations that threatened it, is a motley group of writings spanning the entire second century. It actually illustrates the diversity of early Christian thinking rather than its coherence. That scholars still refer to the literature of the apostolic fathers as a collection, and that publishers still publish it as a discrete corpus, merely demonstrates how deeply indebted the Christian imagination is to the apostolic view of history. It is, after all, the myth that supports the notion of apostolic succession, namely that there was a continuous line of teaching from Jesus, through the apostles, and on to the bishops who were thus able to guarantee the truth of the gospel and pass it on to their own successors.

    In this and the last chapters we have watched the apostolic myth in the making. The emphasis has been upon the changing configurations of the apostles, the kind of literature attributed to them, and the various ways the emerging apostolic myth affected the authorship and authority of other early Christian literary production. Now the spotlight falls on the emerging office of the bishop and the way the authority of the bishop was construed. For this purpose, two sets of texts from the apostolic fathers are most helpful. These are the letters of Clement and Ignatius. Both


    men were in positions of leadership in their congregations writing about the importance of elders and overseers, for the well-being of networks of Christian congregations. They wrote sometime around the first decade of the second century. In each case the occasion for the correspondence is fairly clear. Their responses share some common features despite some glaring differences in their conception of the Christian gospel. And, as we shall see, an early form of the apostolic myth was already involved in the authority each assumed for the oversight of both their own and other Christian congregations. The Greek term is still episkopos, which I have been translating as overseer. Now, however, with the role of the overseer under discussion as an essential ingredient in the very formation of Christianity as a social institution, it may be permissible on occasion to translate episkopos as bishop.

    1 Clement

    First Clement is a long letter of exhortation from the church at Rome to the church at Corinth. A report had been received that the elders in charge of oversight at Corinth had lost their position of authority, apparently as a result of ideological controversy. The congregation at Rome was disturbed by this news and wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth reminding them of their importance as a leading congregation. The point of the protest was that their behavior threatened the unity not only of their own congregation, but of the Christian churches as a whole, and gave dissident voices reason to slander the leadership of the Roman church. Clement is not referred to as the author in the earliest manuscript of this letter and was probably not the overseer at Rome at the time. But he may well have been an elder and the author of the letter, writing in the name of the church for its council of elders. Subsequent manuscripts do attach his name to the subscript at the end of the letter, and later legend remembers him as the second or third bishop at Rome, afer Peter, who was said to have appointed him as his successor. The letter is, in any case, a very important document, the first bit of firsthand evidence we have from the Christian congregation at Rome. Scholars have usually dated the letter around 96 C.E. on the basis of a reference to "sudden and repeated misfortunes and calamities which have befallen us" (1 Clem. 1:1), taken to refer to an alleged persecution during the time of Domitian (81-96 C.E.) and with an eye on Eusebius' history of the church, written in the fourth century. A slightly later dating seems preferable, however, for the tenor of the teaching shares the concern of other early second-century writings with ordering Christian practice, piety, and oversight. A little more time would also help to account for the sense of importance that the Roman congregation obviously enjoyed.

    Rome's response to the Corinthian situation focused on the scandal of upstarts failing to respect their council of elders. The issue of the views that divided the community was not addressed, only the fact of dissension and disharmony. Rome exhorted Corinth to renew the peace and harmony of the congregation by recognizing the elders as those who stood in the tradition of the apostles and the great exemplars


    of piety throughout all history. This is very curious. Piety was the standard for measuring Christian correctness, but the examples of piety were not limited to Jesus ,mild the apostles. They were taken primarily from the epic of Israel and even in-eluded some honorable men from Greek tradition. The dissensions at Corinth mould be resolved if only the dissenters would recognize the piety of these exemplars and submit in obedience to their example. They should do this, as Clement said, for the sake of regaining "faith, fear, peace, patience, long-suffering, self-control, purity, and sobriety" (1 Clement 64), a list of the-virtues that defined Clement's understanding of Christian character. It is of course clear that Jesus, by virtue of the death he suffered for the sins of others, was the prime example of the humility and obedience Clement recommended (1 Clement 16) and that he regarded this gospel as the "glorious and venerable rule of our tradition" (1 Clem. 7:2). But Clement did not leave it there, urging his readers to "review" with him "all the generations, and let us learn that in generation after generation the Master [God] has given a place of repentance to those who will turn to him" (1 Clem. 7:5). Thus repentance is announced as the theme for the exhortation, with a not-so-thinly-veiled suggestion i hat what Clement wanted the dissenters at Corinth to do was repent.

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    The Letters of Ignatius

    Reading the letters of Ignatius is not a pleasant experience. His letters are addressed to the churches at Smyrna, Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, and Rome. In the citations that follow, I will abbreviate the full titles ("Ignatius to the Romans") by reference to the addressees (e.g., Romans). Compared with other early Christian writings there is no room in these letters for the reader to spar with the author. Instead of listening in on Jesus addressing his disciples or watching Paul rank his arguments against opponents and straw men or considering the instructions from the apostles for future Christians from a distance, when reading Ignatius one encounters Ignatius. And he is a true believer. He does not invite his readers into a world larger than his own desire to "attain" God (Romans 4:1). He does not ask them to think about the reasons for being a Christian or its costs and consequences. He does not even give any instructions for the Christian life. But he does make two appeals. One should honor one's overseer, he said, and one should pray for Ignatius and get ready to celebrate his martyrdom. As he said, "Christianity is not a matter of persuasion, but of greatness" (Romans 3:3). And there is only one moment of greatness. It is the moment when the martyr (martyr) makes the great confession (martyria). "I seek Him who died for our sake." "Suffer me to follow the example of the passion of my God." "I long for the beasts that are prepared for me"(Romans 5:2; 6:1, 3). Unfortunately, nothing in his letters indicates that he really did not mean it. He writes naively about his faith, and he expresses his mimetic desire without embarrassment. It is frightening to read him at length. It is a shock to think that the Christ myth had lost its social logic so completely within the span of half a century and that it was now available for such a personal internalization. Ignatius had taken Paul seriously, and he wanted nothing more than to imitate Christ's death, to be "ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ" (Romans 4:1).

    The story is that Ignatius, the bishop at Antioch, was on his way to Rome under Roman guard, having been arrested and put in chains. There is no reference


    anywhere in his letters to the reasons for his arrest and no evidence elsewhere of the circumstances of his arrest or the fact of his being executed. What we learn from the letters is that Ignatius stopped over at Smyrna, where he was received by the bishop of the local Christian congregation, Polycarp. The stay was apparently long enough for delegations to arrive from Ephesus, Tralles, and Magnesia, led by their leaders whom Ignatius recognized as overseers and deacons. While still at Smyrna, apparently, he wrote letters to these congregations to be taken back by their delegations. Later, from Troas, he wrote letters to Smyrna and Polycarp as well as one to the congregation at Philadelphia, all to be delivered by companions who had accompanied him from Smyrna. At some point, he also wrote a letter to the Romans in anticipation of his arrival there.

    The content of each letter is similar. Ignatius compliments the congregation on their bishop, thanks them for their concern on his behalf, and exhorts them to be subject to their bishop, to honor their elders, and to recognize the Christian service of their deacons. Here and there he also asks them to pray for him in his trial and for the church at Antioch, which is now without an overseer. Interwoven is his own confessional understanding of following the Christian way, his concern for the unity and peace of the Christian churches, and his view that, since the bishops represent both Christ and God to their congregations, the proper regard for them ultimately is obedience. Allusions along the way indicate that bishops were presiding over the congregational meetings and meals, that they were charged with the welfare of every member of the congregation, and that individual Christians were expected to consult with them about their most personal questions and needs. This picture of the organization of Christian congregations in Asia Minor is startling, given the stormy histories assumed from the letters of Paul. And the self-assured authority of Ignatius, not only as a bishop of a local congregation, but as one who thought he had the right to counsel other congregations about subjection to their bishops, is completely unexpected. No wonder the letters of Ignatius are famous as proof for the episcopal form of the early Christian church.

    These letters are usually dated between 108 and 117 C.E., the last half of Trajan's rule, slightly later than the letter of 1 Clement and about the time of Luke's Acts of the Apostles. The apostolic myth is in place, but in distinction from Clement's and Luke's interest in history as the best way to imagine the link between the apostles and the overseers, Ignatius is content to construct a hierarchical pattern of governance for the church on the model of a Platonic universe. In this model the apostles have their place under the authority of Christ, just as Christ is under the authority of God. This model is thoroughly Greek in its conception as an interlocking series of archetypes and copies. It functioned for Ignatius as the revelation to Christians of God's pleasure, will, and rule. It was a pattern to be copied in the organization of the Christian congregation. Copying it as a pattern also reflects a thoroughly Greek mentality, where the similarity between a pattern and its copy meant that they shared a common essence and where the imitation of a model resulted in substantive


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    The easy confidence of the early bishops in their watered-down gospel was soon to be shattered. They had disregarded the conceptual contradictions in the Christian myth and overlooked the social reasons for dissension and controversy in their own congregations. They had conveniently dismissed the differing views and practices of other Christian groups in locations throughout the empire such as Eastern Syria, Palestine, Alexandria, and North Africa. Their call for peace and unity within a congregation and for respectability in view of the Romans was well intentioned and apparently somewhat successful. But it was anchored in a vague and vaporous sense of divine pleasure in loyalty and in the threat of an eventual judgment as the ultimate hurdle on the way to eternal life. This may have been enough for many parishioners whom the bishops helped in the practical matters of living and getting along with one's neighbors. But for thoughtful persons, concerned about the logic of the bishops' myth, the simple, apostolic gospel was not enough to take pride in the novel religion that was taking its public place in the Greco-Roman world. It was time for scholarly debate among the various Christian traditions and for Christian intellectuals to give an account of the new religion that Greeks, Romans, and others might be able to understand.

    The next generation of Christians produced such intellectuals. Marcion of Sinope (in Pontus, northern Asia Minor), Valentinus of Alexandria, and Justin of Samaria converged on Rome around 140-150 C.E. to battle for extremely different views of what Christianity should be. Slightly later, several more joined the fray with voluminous literary output to argue for other conceptions of the new religion: Irenaeus, born in Asia Minor and writing from Lyons, but with thoroughly Roman loyalties; Clement of Alexandria, originally from Athens, who laid the foundation for "Christian philosophy" as head of the catechetical school in Egypt; and Tertullian of Carthage in North Africa, who defended the faith against everything Greek, pagan, gnostic, and immoral. The apostolic myth would survive, but only as part of a much larger, more complex understanding of history and the world than the early bishops


    could have imagined. The mythic history of the church would eventually have to include a tortured reading of the epic of Israel in order to make it end with the Christ, as well as an odd conception of humankind in order to give Christians their start at the very creation of the world. A peculiar understanding of God would need to be rationalized, and the ambiguous role of the church in the Roman Empire would have to be explained.

    The bright young intellectuals that arose in the second Christian century asked the bishops to step aside, brushed off the wobbly foundation upon which the bishops had been standing, and discovered that the stones were not well set. They found that the mythic foundation of the church was much in need of repair, if not reconstruction. First they chipped away at the foundation stones and found it possible to rearrange some. But then they set to work constructing some new and very complex systems of thought in order to place God and his Christ at the center of a comprehensive view of cosmos and history, and to trace the hidden paths for people in quest of eternal salvation. With them we enter the era of the "fathers," the so-called patristic age when mythmaking took the form of constructing theologies. They certainly had their work cut out for them, trying to make sense of the Christian gospel in the middle of the second century. Having been to school, they were eager to keep the whole world in view, and they felt as if the whole world was watching them. All were well prepared for the challenge, thoroughly at home in the culture of Greek: logic, thought, and literature. They were also well read in the Jewish scriptures and thoroughly acquainted with the many traditions of Christian's thought. And they took to the field with banners flying. If there was any sense to be made of the new religion, these intellectuals would have to make it.

    A theology that supported centrist interests finally won, though it took two hundred years or more to work it out in competition with other views. The remarkable thing about this Christian view of the world is that its complex system of thought was created to support a single claim. The claim was that Christians were the legitimate heirs of the epic of Israel, that the Jews had never understood the intentions of their God, and that the story of Israel, if one read it rightly, was "really" about the coming of Christ. It may seem strange that such a far-fetched claim would determine the Christian conceptions of God, the world, and human history. But that is what happened, and there were some reasons why it had to be, given the way Christianity had emerged. These reasons, and the arguments for the systems that these first theologians came up with, are the subject of this chapter. We are at the point where the beginnings of Christian theology and the construction of the Christian epic were the same enterprise. A Christian theology of centrist persuasion was impossible without laying claim to the legacy of the history of Israel, but making that claim meant that a new centrist theology would have to be invented and defended. As we shall see, the centrist "fathers" won, the Jewish scriptures became the Christian Old Testament, and Western Christianity as we know it today finally had its myth and ritual act together.



    Marcion of Sinope triggered the explosion. He was the rich son of a bishop in Pontus, reared on Paul's version of the Christ myth, and extremely well read in early Christian literature and the Jewish scriptures. As he looked around at his fellow Christians, some things did not make sense. Christians were still trying to be loyal to the Jewish God even after they learned that they did not have to keep his law. But the God who gave the Jews their law could not be the same as the God who sent his son to proclaim mercy. Marcion thought the Jewish God was obviously overly concerned with justice and that his role in the story of the people he chose to govern was one of judgment, wrath, and violence in the interest of ethnic purity and exclusive control. The wise, kind God whom Jesus made known, a God previously unknown, a God of mercy and compassion for all humankind, was much different. And after Paul, according to Marcion, something had gone wrong in the church as well. It must have been the other apostles who were soft on Judaism. It must have been the Judaizers who wrote most of the gospels and worked over the epistles of Paul. The church was in danger of losing its orientation to the incomparable gospel of Christ, the first revelation of the alien God, the only God who was good and desired that all human souls receive eternal life. The first line of Marcion's famous Antitheses was: "O wonder beyond wonders, rapture, power, and amazement is it, that one can say nothing at all about the gospel, nor even conceive of it, nor compare it with anything" (cited in Harnack 1990, 66). So Marcion set out to save the day for the new and unique religion.

    According to Marcion, the Jewish God, the creator of this hostile world, was not worthy of worship. And the Jewish scriptures with their laws and stories of punishment and sacrifice should be discarded. In their place Christians needed only their own records of the appearance of Christ and his announcement of the God who was good. But what to do about the writings of the wrongheaded apostles and the tampering they must have done to the epistles of Paul? The answer was obvious: Reject all the early Christian writings that were written by apostles who did not grasp the novelty of the Christian revelation, and excise the additions to the letters of Paul made by later Judaizers. And so the first New Testament canon of literature was horn. It contained ten (excised) letters of Paul and one abbreviated Gospel of Luke. Polycarp called Marcion "the first-born of Satan," and Justin and Tertullian would write at length against his views. That is because Marcion had rejected the apostolic myth and put his finger on some embarrassing, unresolved contradictions in the bishops' view of the gospel. As for his own views, he did find a hearing at Pontus, Ephesus, and Rome. Congregations formed, a school started, and a Marcionite church spread throughout the empire and toward the east. Entire villages became Marcionite Christians, and the Marcionites challenged centrist theologians for several hundred years.

    Marcion's theology was simplistic and rife with internal contradictions of its (awn. But it was understandable, and people could actually do what was required. He


    started with Paul's contrast between the law and the gospel in his letter to the Galatians. He then used Paul's concept of the "flesh" to negate the material world created by the Jewish God and discount his laws which, according to Marcion, were all obsessed with physical conditions and concerns with the "flesh." Christ, on the other hand, revealed the love of God and introduced the holy spirit, the divine and cosmic principle set in opposition to the flesh. Thus Christian spirituality consisted in living a disciplined life, designed to minimize interest in and control by the "flesh," as the proper worship of the true but alien spiritual God of love. The average Christian may not have jumped at the chance to live such a disciplined life, but the codes were clear and the system simple. People were attracted to the anti-Jewish interpretation of the new Christian religion; centrist bishops and other intellectuals were horrified. And consternation reigned among the intellectuals, for there were no ready answers to the questions Marcion raised about Christians paying homage to the Jewish God. As Trypho put the question to Justin, compounding the embarrassment of a Marcion by the fact that Trypho was a Jew, "You expect to receive favors from God, yet you disregard his commandments" (Justin, Dialogue 10). With Marcion, a basic contradiction in the logic of the bishops' myth came to the surface, and the old, unresolved question about the function of the Mosaic law turned into a new and troubling question about the nature of God.


    To make matters worse, Valentinus appeared in Rome about this time from Alexandria. He also understood himself to be a fully convinced and committed Christian, working out a theological system with practical consequences for the average congregation. According to Valentinus, Christ had made it possible for Christians, not only to know about God, but to know him by "acquaintance," as Bentley Layton translates gnosis (1987). If Christians had this kind of gnosis, they would realize they were God's offspring. If Valentinus had left it there, no one would have disagreed, for what Christian would have wanted to say that Christians were not "acquainted" with God? But Valentinus was a gnostic Christian, and his idea of acquaintance referred to a special kind of knowledge that only a revealer from the realm of cosmic light ce ul~make known. So with both Marcion and Valentinus converging on Rome, the very center of centrist Christianity would have to be the place where the battle for Christian orthodoxy would ensue. To set the scene, we need to know what was going on in Alexandria, the city where Valentinus had studied and worked out his system of Christian gnostic theology before coming to Rome.

    Alexandria was the world's center for books, learning, and philosophical speculation. All the traditional schools of Greek philosophy and science were represented, and the mood of the time was to find a way to fit them all together in some grand scheme that might account for everything in the vast universe of information that was coming into view. The larger the horizon, the more abstract the concepts. And


    so the time was ripe for a resurgence of Platonic philosophy, which we now call middle Platonism. Plato distinguished between a physical world perceived by the senses and its mental pattern lodged in the mind of being. The idea of transcendent being, Plato's "god," was generally attractive, and a revival of interest in Plato's myth of creation as told in the Timaeus pervaded the academic scene. In this myth, Plato started with the standard distinction between an archetype and its image, a ranked pair of pattern and copy commonly used to describe the relationship between such things as a seal and its impression, a model and its imitation, or a plan and the object made from it. Plato used the metaphor to imagine a god thinking up the plan for the great world city, which he kept in his mind. Then a demiurgos or craftsman entered the story and kept his eye on the pattern while shaping matter (hyle) into the material world. Plato's story became the rage in Alexandria. It made it possible to hang on to some lofty ideas about the core of reality being ultimately constructive, unified, and perfect even while living in the midst of a world where cultural fragmentation and social chaos reigned. It also made it possible to retain a positive connotation for craftsmanship (techne, skill, technique), a basic metaphor and concept for theories of discourse (rhetoric), social construction, and cosmic design. Sophists and philosophical charlatans had given techne a negative connotation because of the way they manipulated or (mis)used language. And as we shall see, the Platonic notion of the world as a construct could also easily backfire, supposing one had reason to think that the craftsman had made a mistake. But it was very difficult to imagine any constructive project that did not involve a creative use of technology, and Plato's myth blessed techne by making it fundamental to the way in which the world was created.

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    Justin Martyr was born in Flavia Neapolis near Shechem in Samaria, and he called himself a Samaritan. But his grandfather Bacchius and father Priscus had Latinized Greek and Roman names, and his family was suspiciously Roman and well-to-do. Justin studied all the major Greek philosophies and assimilated a high


    level of Hellenistic education before converting to Christianity. His conversion took place by the seashore while walking and talking with a peasant, or so the ,story goes. He then turned to the books of Moses and the prophets and discovered the source of the ancient wisdom to which the Greeks, it was said, were indebted. This, according to Justin, was the wisdom that finally was fully revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He traveled to Ephesus and then to Rome as a Christian itinerant philosopher, and he never gave up the philosopher's cloak. But in Rome he ran into Marcion and the teachings of Valentinus, and Justin became a theologian. What a scene! With Justin taking the position of an apologist for centrist Christianity, the fireworks began in defense of the Christian gospel. Apologies and polemics were written in response to the challenge that created the genres of Christian theology and literature for the next two hundred years.

    The next period of Christian thinking would feature men like Justin, highly educated intellectuals, constructing systems of theological thought against the heresies within, and in debate with the "pagan" intellectuals without. Their horizons would include the Romans, the Greeks, and the Jews, as well as opposing schools of Christian thought. Marcionites, Valentinians, gnostics, Montanists, and Manichaeans would create confusion and draw down wrath as "heresies," only to give way in the fourth and fifth centuries to conflict among the different theologies firmly ensconced in the various centers of episcopate Christianity and to the councils Constantine called to adjudicate their differences. Justin set the pace with a treatise Against Marcion, another Against All Heresies, two Apologies addressed to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (137-161 C.E.), and a Dialogue with Trypho, a Jewish intellectual. The makings of yet another genre are also found lurking within his apologies. It was the Exhortation to the Greeks, a form of argument for which we have an excellent early example from Clement of Alexandria who wrote toward the end of the second century. This was literature of debate. Argumentation and the organization of treatises followed the rules of classical rhetoric. Theses and countertheses, charges and countercharges, arguments in favor and arguments against shaped the apologies, exhortations, and censures that controlled the process of redefining Christianity as a religion of reason. After Justin came Tatian in Syria, Athenagoras of Athens, Theophilus of Antioch, Melito of Sardis, Dionysius of Corinth, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and others filling the pages of the next one hundred years. The genres stayed the same and the arguments as well. Thus the guns were blazing against all fronts, and the modern historian must sometimes wade through line after line of misfire before discovering the issue at stake and the reasons that really counted.

    The claim that was made again and again consisted of the following two propositions: (1) that the Christian God was the creator of the world and the God of Israel's history, and (2) that the Christian way of life was exactly what God had had in mind for all humankind all along. This was exactly what the centrists had to propose to counter the challenges of Marcion and Valentinus. And as one might expect, the


    theologians of the church found arguments galore to buttress their claims. They found so many, in fact, that they were able to win simply by overwhelming their opponents with words. That at least is the impression one has as a modern reader of this apologetic literature. Their opponents must have conceded from sheer exhaustion, supposing that the opponents they addressed actually read them. Thus, if we take this literature at face value, the apologists were simply trying to save the day for the traditional notion of the Christian God by putting down the heresies and helping the faithful get their theology right. That they went on at such length would then be merely a sign of their eagerness in defense of the gospel.

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    The Christian myth is an unfinished epic. The story begins at the creation of the world, spans human history, and ends in an apocalyptic destruction of the world. History pivots when Christ appears as the revealer of God's plan for humans, the world, and the kingdom that God has destined to replace the kingdoms of the world. Those who live according to the plan are promised eternal life, the survival of the cataclysm at the end of the world. Those who do not accept the plan will be destroyed. The myth is based on the Christian Bible, a collection of texts that begins with Genesis and ends with the Apocalypse to John. The texts that recount the history before the appearance of Christ are known as the Old Testament. Those that tell of the coming of the Christ are known as the New Testament. The Old Testament is composed of archaic Jewish scriptures in a certain arrangement. The New Testament consists mainly of first- and second-century apostolic gospels and letters, but it also includes the Acts of the Apostles, a first chapter of Christian history, and the Apocalypse to John, a vision of the grand finale. Between the apostolic acts and the apocalyptic ending, there is room for adding other chapters to the history of Christendom and/or the church.

    Filling in the chapters of Christian history subsequent to the Acts of the Apostles has been done, not by adding written accounts to the Bible, but by keeping track of the heroes of the faith in other ways: marking the succession of the bishops and popes, memorializing the lives of saints, princes, and protectors of Christendom, and writing the histories of the missions of the church. Symmetry is achieved by balancing scenes from the Old Testament with scenes from the New Testament and the subsequent history of Christianity. Thus one finds on the portals of the medieval cathedrals the even balance of the Old Testament precursors on one side of the Christ and on the other the apostles, popes, and princes of subsequent Christian history. The Christ is pictured in the archway at the top both as an axis mundi and as the hinge of history. It is the Christian myth in pictures. It is the Christian epic


    brought up to date but without ending the story. Whether as apocalypse, purgatory, or the parting of the ways to heaven or hell, the ending of the Christian epic is always outstanding. Thus other chapters of the church in the world can be added. And even as the spread of Christianity elongates and complicates the monolinear thrust of the epic, balance is achieved by compressing the memory of Christian history to balance the new with the old. A newly Christianized people keep alive the memories of their missionaries and a bit of their own subsequent history, and then leapfrog over the long reaches of the two-thousand-year history of the church in order to hook up with the New Testament and take their guidance from the Bible.

    All Christian communities make a place for the Bible. The Bible may, in fact, be the only feature of the Christian religion that all Christians have in common. Without the Bible the Christian myth would evaporate. A Christian community would not know how to orient itself to the world, and the thrust of the Christian imagination toward that grand finale would lose its energy and sense of direction. Without the epic framework provided by the Bible, all the other myths, rituals, and notions of salvation that have become traditional to the Christian religions would disintegrate or mutate into different cults or cultures.

    While all Christians recognize the importance of the Bible, few speak of its significance as epic. It is thought to be inspired, called the Word of God, regularly read in the course of Christian ritual, appealed to for grounding the doctrines of salvation, and consulted as a guide to Christian faith and life. Beneath all of these ways in which the Bible is regarded, however, lies the fundamental reason for the Bible's importance. It is the story of God's purposes for humankind. The Bible is where the Christian notions of God and history are intertwined, the paradigms of salvation are set, the thrust toward the future is generated, and the charter for Christianity to expand throughout the world is given. No wonder the Bible is viewed as a sacred text by Christians. The Bible is the Christian myth. The Christian myth is the Bible. No wonder theologians refer to the Bible as the canon (from the Greek kanon, "measuring rod"), a complete and closed book of sacred scripture, a book to be consulted but not to be explained. The fact that the Bible is the Christian myth has made it difficult to be critical and analytical about its composition. The fact that it is thought of as the Christian canon has made research about its formation extreme difficult to pursue.

    Even theologians know that the Bible did not fall from heaven, of course, and that the history of its production spans more than one thousand years. That knowledge has made it necessary for scholars to give an account of its formation, and one of would think that the notion of the Bible as canon would pop up at the end of this history. Oddly, however, the usual scholarly approach to the study of the formation of the Christian Bible starts with the concept of canon and tries to account for the history on its terms. Canon means "norm" or "standard," as in canon law or the canons of musical composition. Applied to the Bible, canon refers to the precise collection of texts found in the Bible as the only ones regarded by the Christian church


    as "sacred," "normative," or authoritative for Christian ritual, reading, and instruction. Canon means "closed," "exclusive," "inspired," and "revealed" as "Word of God." Because this concept has been so deeply etched in the Christian imagination, Christian scholars have gone about their research on the formation of the Bible as if it were a process of coming to see which books belonged to the canon. They have assumed that authors, intellectuals, and in fact all Jews and Christians of the Greco-Roman period had in mind the concept of a biblical canon before there was a Bible. That being the case, the task for scholars has been to trace the history of the "recognition" of the canon, those moments when Jews or Christians realized which books were "in" the canon and which books were to be "excluded" from the canon. Naturally, as one reads the large literary production of about one thousand years, one can find many references to "the writings"; to sets of writings, such as the five books of Moses; to classifications of writings, such as "the law and the prophets"; to lists of "their writings" or "our writings"; to certain writings as "holy"; to translations as "inspired," such as an early Greek translation of the five books of Moses; to "disputed" writings, such as those attributed to apostolic authorship that were judged to be pseudonymous. What one does not find is a concept of canon or any reference to a closed canon of sacred scripture. Not to be stymied, biblical scholars sort through the references just mentioned looking for the dates when this or that part of the scriptural canon was set, "recognized," or "closed." It is as if the idea of the Bible were in everyone's mind as a number of blank spaces that needed to be filled in with the books of the Bible. A blank space would be filled in whenever someone recognized that a writing was "inspired" and so "belonged" in the Bible.

    The creation of the Christian Bible is much more interesting and messier than that. It is the story of fiercely fought cultural conquest. Age-old patterns of practice and thought were twisted out of shape by an upstart religion within the space of about two hundred years. Some cultural remnants were consigned to the archaic past, others to oblivion, and others to the devil as the residue of pagan religions that continued to haunt the new world order. The story of cultural conquest starts around the middle of the second century. By the end of the fourth it was all over. Books had been banned and burned, temples destroyed, martyrs killed, and pagan festivals exposed as licentious. The Roman imperium and system of governance were exhausted. Greek learning and culture had been usurped by Christian theologians as a mere "preparation for the gospel" (Eusebius). An enormous outpouring of intellectual energy had been invested in coming to terms with diverse cultural traditions and in fighting over programs, philosophies, theologies, and practices in the interest of this or that conception of God's big plans for the world. Scholars in all traditions, not just Christian, but Jewish, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and all the cultures that found themselves in the cauldron of the Greco-Roman age, had devoted entire lives to the conservation and accommodation of cultures. They had been thoroughly engaged in learning foreign languages, translating texts, comparing cultures, creating concepts, and arguing over the proprietary rights of huge, fantastic, imaginary worlds. And the


    epic of Israel, the only epic from the ancient Near East that survived the pummeling, of the earlier triumph of Hellenism, an epic tenaciously contested during the Roman period by every group with roots in Jewish culture, had been manipulated by Christians to their advantage and thoroughly revised by the Jews for theirs. Constantine had seen the light. Councils of bishops had been convened. Creeds, calendars, and rituals had been regularized. And the building of Christian basilicas had begun. The last tragic irony in the Christian appropriation of the Jewish heritage was the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the dawn of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was then that the Latin translation of two, collections of texts, the "Old" and the "New Testaments," established the book that would shape the mythic imagination of Christendom for the next one thousand years. Only then can we speak of "The (Christian) Bible."

    The Jewish scriptures available to early Christians consisted of "the law," "the prophets," and "other writings that followed them," which is the way Ben Sira's grandson referred to Jewish literature as a whole about 130 B.C.E. (Sirach, Prologue). These writings did not constitute a closed canon of sacred literature, even though everyone knew that "the law" referred to the five books of Moses and that "the prophets" referred to a class of oracular writings in various collections from the. history of Israel before and after the exile. As for "the other writings," it did not refer to a particular kind or class of writings, much less a closed collection. It was a term that referred to "our literature," including such books as Psalms and Proverbs, and the stories of Ruth and Esther. This literature had its place in the life of the Jewish community, serving as handbooks for prayers, lessons for instruction, and stories for festival occasions. Some of this literature was considered ancestral, as in the case of the Psalms of David, but that did not mean that psalms were no longer being written and added to the collection. The evidence from Qumran and the various translations of the Psalms into Greek tell us that they were. And Ben Sira's book of wisdom was written, dated, and signed without embarrassment as an addition to instructional literature on a par with "the other books of our ancestors." So what was the importance of the Jewish scriptures that excited early Christians and created such raging debates between Christians and Jews?

    The common core of the Jewish scriptures was the five books of Moses. These books told the story of how Israel came to be. They also contained the charters, laws, and preachments for the kind of society that God expected of Israel. This combination of epic history and legal constitution governed the composition and logic of this literature from its earliest formation during the kingdoms of David and Solomon, and persisted through at least two subsequent revisions. The earliest form of the story is still debated by scholars, but the suspicion has been that, before the additions of the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus and the major revisions of the patriarchal history that accompanied those additions, the story continued unbroken through the taking of the land to end with the court histories of David. This history was saved in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. If one adds them to


    the five books of Moses, one can certainly imagine an epic that served as an etiology for the Davidic monarchy and celebrated its glory.

    From the time of the Davidic monarchy until the end of the second temple, this epic of Israel was revised again and again without changing its essential objective: the establishment of a temple-state in Jerusalem. Of course revisions were necessary in order to account for the changes in Jerusalem that history introduced: destructions, exiles, restorations, failures, shifts in party politics, and so forth. At first the revisions called for were achieved by rewriting the text, once by the deuteronomistic historian, later by the scribes of a priestly school. The deuteronomistic historian added the book of Deuteronomy and broke the link between the wilderness journey and the entrance into the land (Sanders 1972). The priestly scribes added the book of Leviticus and reworked the stories of sacrifice to mirror the plans for the second temple in the patriarchal covenants. When the Hellenistic age dawned at the turn of the third century B.C.E., ways were found to revise the epic without actually changing the text. The author of the book of Chronicles wrote a parallel account; Ben Sira composed an epic poem; the community of Qumran developed a form of commentary; Alexandrian Jews turned the epic into an allegory of the soul; and Jewish historians rewrote the antiquities as a separate text in the style of Greek historiography. And these were not the only ways in which the epic of Israel stimulated thought during the Hellenistic period. All of the enormous literary production by Jewish intellectuals during these three hundred years appealed to the epic as the source for precedent and authority to support their positions taken with respect to the state of the second temple in Jerusalem. All Jewish intellectuals assumed that the epic of Israel was an etiology for the temple-state in Jerusalem.

    When the Romans left a smoldering desolation in the Jerusalem hills, creation crashed and the epic ended in tragedy, not triumph. What were Jews to do? Josephus tried to explain it as an unfortunate turn of events caused by inept Jewish leaders who would not cooperate with the Romans. But his arguments sound hollow and devoid of personal conviction. As he brought his history of the war to an end, he could not bring himself to settle for a purely political account. He lingered over the disaster as if, once told, there would be no more history to write. And he filled the last days with reports of cosmic portents and the voices of those who wandered through the streets crying out woes. It is telling that he ended this history with an account of Eleazar's speech to the remnants of the Jewish resistance at Masada. It was an exhortation to self-inflicted martyrdom as the only freedom left for those who wished to be loyal to the God of Israel.

    A more pensive and poetic response was written about the same time, toward the end of the first century C.E. in the apocalyptic text called 4 Ezra. In it the history and promise of Israel are rehearsed in succinct, credolike laments that end with unanswerable questions, "O Adam, what have you done?"; "O Lord, what of the promises?"; "O God, how could you let it happen?"; "O Israel, where now is your salvation?" There was one final show of political resistance, a move of desperation


    by Bar Kochba in 135 C.E. who tried to drive the Romans out with messianic fervor. When the Romans said "Enough," colonized Jerusalem, renamed it Aelia Capitolina, and denied Jews access to their own city, all Jews everywhere knew that the temple-state in Jerusalem was now only a memory. The epic of the grand traditions of Israel would once more have to be revised.

    The future lay with a creative confluence of the Pharisaic schools in Palestine, where the law of Moses underwent revision, with the diaspora synagogue as the "house" where Jews would meet to say their prayers. After the war, the legacy of the Pharisees and the institution of the diaspora synagogue were the only forms of Jewish life capable of converging to form what we now call rabbinic Judaism (from rabbi, my master, my teacher). The process of merging the two was slow, and the history is sparse. There is a legend about the Pharisees and leaders of the Jerusalem schools moving to Jamnia in the late first century, then some hard evidence that the schools were moved to Tiberius in Galilee during the second century. By the end of the second century C.E., the new codification of the law of Moses had produced the Mishnah ("to repeat and study"), a collection of sixty-three tractates on the laws that governed the "purity" of such things as foods, tithes, marriage, daily life, prayers, fasting, times, and places. By the end of the fourth century, diaspora synagogues had learned to acknowledge the authority of the academy where rabbis were trained to study and interpret the laws that governed diaspora Judaism.

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    consign this literature to oblivion. By rejecting it, they bequeathed the legacy of Hellenistic Judaism to the Christians.

    Early Christians knew that the five books of Moses were more important than other books, both because they were ancient and because they contained the covenants and laws basic to all forms of Jewish society. They knew that "the law" and "the prophets" went together and that this combination was more fundamental for rehearsing the history of Israel than subsequent paraphrases or interpretations of that history. They knew that the Five Scrolls (megilloth: Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther) were stories read at the yearly festivals of the Jews. And they treated the Psalms and Proverbs as handbooks of prayer and meditation just as the Jews did. But ranking of this kind, based as it was on practical and functional considerations, did not produce a canon that limited sacredness or revelation to these texts. Jewish writings were Jewish scriptures, the God of the Jews was the Father of Jesus Christ, and the Christ had introduced about as much light and fire as anyone needed. Christian interest in Jewish texts was, after all, a secondary consideration. Consulting Jewish scripture had always been occasioned by some circumstance that had arisen in the course of early Christian history. If that circumstance called for a Christian revision of the epic, that is what Christians did. If it called for arguments against the Pharisees from the books of Moses, they could be found. If it called for a little help from the prophets, citations could be garnered. If it called for a Christian meditation on the Psalms, Christ hymns could be written. And if some citations from Jewish literature, such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Wisdom of Solomon, or the Maccabean histories, might help to make a point, these references also counted. A quick count of the references to non-canonical Jewish literature in the writings of the New Testament adds up to about 400 entries (McDonald 1989, 172-77). This means that early Christians were not dealing in sacred literature. They were involved in a new religious movement that had to construct its mythology with borrowed ingredients. They combed through the Jewish scriptures this way and that, not because they thought these texts contained the word of God, but because they were the literature of a parent culture.

    As we have seen, the first attempts to make a connection with the history of Israel were not driven by a great claim to fulfill the promise of that history. The appeals to the epic in the miracle story chains and in the wisdom mythology of Q were simple attempts to see some reflection of the early Jesus people in stories that were shared in the popular epic imagination. The Jesus people wanted to borrow a sense of importance from mythic precedents and create a sense of continuity with Israel's illustrious history for their social movements. That was all. They had no desire or design to supplant the fundamental rationale of the epic. Their use of the scriptures was playful, spotty, and naive, not programmatic. That is because their commitments to the Jesus movement were not based upon a reformation of second-temple Judaism or a novel, exclusive claim upon the epic of Israel. The Jesus movements were generated and grounded in other commitments and convictions.


    It was not long, however, before trysts with the Pharisees called for giving serious thought to the five books of Moses. That meant coming to terms with the text of prime importance for both the epic of Israel and the constitution of Judaism. The first attempts at reading Moses were, however, ad hoc, defensive and polemical, not constructive or systematic. It was as if the Jesus people were saying, "Look, even in the light of your own scriptures, we look pretty good." This was the approach at the second level of Q, in the pronouncement stories, and even in Paul. As we have seen, Paul grasped the seriousness of the issue for his own version of the gospel, and he wanted very much to argue for a revision of the epic in favor of Christian congregations. He made a concerted effort in his letter to the Galatians to claim the promise of the epic while discounting the five books of Moses as Torah or law. It was a pitiful attempt, and Paul must have known that it was, for he later tried another approach in his letter to the Romans. None of these revisions made before 70 C.E. were convincing because the Christian movement could not match the obvious logic of the epic as an etiology for second-temple Judaism.

    The destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. created a new situation for both Jews and Christians. History had not matched the epic's promise. The first Jewish response would have been to see the event, not as an unfortunate disaster perpetrated by the Romans, but as a divine judgment upon themselves. What evil had they done to justify such devastation? Mark understood the significance of that question and dared to supply the answer. According to Mark, God destroyed the temple because the Jews had destroyed the Christ. This time it was not the books of Moses that were researched in order to find some link with the past, but the prophets. Mark saw that the destruction of the temple marked the end of an era, and that it gave the Christians a chance to justify their existence as a movement not grounded in second-temple Judaism. The prophets had already been used by the Qumran community as the basis for a charge of divine displeasure with the temple establishment. Mark turned that prophetic critique to Christian advantage with a little help from deuteronomistic thinking. The temple's destruction must have been a deserved, divine retribution for the failure of the Jews to accept the Jesus-Christ movements. But Mark could not say why and how the shift of God's pleasure from Jews to Christians had taken place. He had found a way to coordinate the crucifixion, the destruction of the temple, and the warnings of the prophets. But he had not found a way to work back from this apocalyptic interpretation of recent events to any promise in the history of Israel that Christians might claim as their own.

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    Copyright © 1995 by HarperCollins -- All rights reserved.
    Only limited, "fair use" excerpts reproduced here.



    OF  THE  BIBLE   

    The Bible was created when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. It was a profoundly scintillating arrangement. An earthly king joined forces with the priests of the heavenly kingdom of God, and together they claimed the legacy of God's great plan for humankind. The Bible was the record of that plan and its troubled history from the very foundation of the world. The plan and the history were all-encompassing. The vast cosmic scope, and the sweep of the story as an unbroken thread through all of human history, told of the quest for a just and sustainable kingdom to remedy the world's ills and bring the nations to the knowledge and service of the one true God. Toward the end of that history, at the crucial point of revelation, when the plan of God was seen to include the nations and was ready to be announced to the world at large, the charge was given to the Christian church, as it had been given to Israel, to represent the kingdom's quest and see that it come to pass. Thus, with Constantine converted, the age-old model of the temple-state could start to work again, and the history of Christendom began. The king and the priest had finally seen each other in the light of this new arrangement, and the foundations were laid for an age of tensive balance between the scepter and the staff, an age that lasted, without reformation, for the next one thousand years. The kingdom of God that the church had in mind did not exactly match the kingdoms of the kings. But the church has seldom thought that strange. Just think. The church was finally positioned at the apex of power. It had in its hands the very power of the gods to shape the minds of the peoples of the world from the kings on down. That was more than a match for the kings who only controlled labor and the power to execute in matters of life and death.

    Catholic churches have always tended to represent the kingdom of God on earth in their own institutional structures, creating religious associations and enclaves within the kingdoms of the world as real reminders of the all-encompassing spiritual worlds of eternal heaven and hell. Protestant churches have always tended to represent the kingdom of God by being a critical voice within society, as well as by calling


    on people to prepare for a future life in heaven, often with the threat of an apocalyptic alternative. In both cases, the churches have taken their places matter-of-factly within their host societies, comfortable as institutions with religious privilege, while representing a "kingdom" that they need not fully actualize in their own associations. To represent the kingdom of God on earth gives the churches a strange kind of authority. They can call the society at large to task for not living up to God's standards while pointing to another time and place when the kingdom of God will finally be revealed. The church itself is strangely exempt from that social and cultural critique.

    To claim its right to speak with authority the church must always keep the Bible in its hands. The Bible creates the aura of a universal plan, and it grants the church its charter and charge to represent that plan in the histories of the peoples of the world. Without the Bible, the church would look ridiculous. How would it verify what it says it knows? How would it point to what it represents? How would it have any authority to speak? Why would any working society put up with its scoldings? But with the Bible in hand, the church can represent much, much more than it ever need display. It can represent the human quest for the kingdom of God which, according to the Bible, has been part of the plan of God from the beginning of creation. And it can know how the story will end. What more could anyone ask?

    The Bible has been carried along wherever the church has ventured. It is the only object of the Christian religion that all forms of Christianity have in common. And the power of its epic is never more clear than in the way the Bible works when the church confronts another culture with its message of salvation. Conversion is a complex process, especially when the people of another culture encounter Christian missionaries entering the picture along with the worldly forces of their kings. The Bible's role as epic may not be obvious, and the Bible itself may not be noticed as the document that will force a radical reorientation of a people's sense of history and identity. And yet, that is exactly what inevitably occurs. For almost two thousand years, the church has drawn people after people into alignment with the biblical epic and the history of Western civilization that flows from it. The illustrious traditions of a people's own culture have invariably been forced into the shadows, if not threatened by complete erasure from their collective memory. To accept the Christian religion, people have always had to adjust their thinking to the very unusual notion of belonging to a people and a history that were not really their own.

    To be confronted with having two histories, the history of one's own people and the Christian epic from the Bible, requires astonishing mental gymnastics. Think of knowing the history of your own country, people, and ancestral traditions, only to be addressed as a child of Abraham, an heir to the history of Israel, instructed by Moses, judged by the prophets, redeemed by the Christ, and enlightened by the apostles. That is the history that one will need to accept and internalize if one converts and cares about eternity. It is the only history that will count when the final accountings are tallied. But how can a people have two histories? How can that history and one's own history both be true? And even if one knows that both can't be


    equally true, the biblical history must always prevail if one wants to remain, or must remain, a part of the march of Western Christian culture. Saying yes to that history has been the price one had to pay for access to Western civilization. Most people have paid that price in sterling. And the story continues.

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    with liberty and justice for all." Epics are always taken seriously. They create cultural foundations and are dangerous to dislodge. The second is that the Bible is the myth and ritual text for Christianity. Sacred texts of a dominant religion are always taboo and never to be questioned. And the third reason is that the Bible functions as an oracle in popular parlance and practice. Discrediting an oracle is like touching a tar baby. It is very tricky business. In light of our study about the Bible's formation, however, and in view of our world-scape at the end of the twentieth century, these reasons are wearing thin. Each deserves thorough scrutiny by means of calm, measured, critical conversation in the public forum. We might start with some observations about the way in which each of these biblical functions actually works. Explanation is always a helpful move when confronted with mystique. I will discuss these functions in reverse order: first the oracular, then the function of the Bible as the church's ritual text, and finally the way the Bible works as the epic for an American sense of presence in the world.


    Those who study the Bible in quest of an answer to some question say it works, that answers are forthcoming. By this they mean that the study of the Bible does produce insights and instructions that address human circumstances of our time. This impression can be explained. It is an accidental by-product of the way the Bible combines two different collections of writings, the Old and the New Testaments. The way these two collections are connected forms a kind of equation for solving theoretical problems and produces a kind of grammar for thinking about human situations. The uncanny aspect of this equation is that it automatically activates cognitive functions that are basic for any and all human thought. Ultimately, it is the way this equation stimulates thought that gives the Bible its fascination as a book of sacred oracles and teases the reader into thinking that it holds the secret to profound understanding.

    The Bible works its magic at the level of cognitive grammar in the following way. The balance between the old and the new sets up an equation of comparison and contrast. Comparison and contrast are fundamental modes of classifying things and thinking about them (J. Z. Smith 1982, 19-3 5). Some would say they are the fundamental cognitive functions. The old and the new also make a ranked pair, with the new superior to the old. All binary oppositions, all pairs of comparative or contrastive terms in the arenas of human thought are ranked (J. Z. Smith 1987, 42-46). The ranking may be arbitrary in such pairs as light/dark, up/down, male/female, but it is never missing. That is surely one reason why the contrast between the old and the new in the Christian Bible has never been questioned. It has been taken in stride as natural.

    The signs contained in the Old Testament, moreover, need to be read at two levels of signification in order to work in the Christian equation. Those who created the Bible in the second to fourth centuries knew that the Jewish scriptures had to be


    allegorized in order to become Christian scriptures. We can now see the result of that strategy. It charged the biblical equation of old and new signs with linguistic sophistication. Only by shifting the signs from the Old Testament into metaphor, symbolism, or figural abstraction does the equation of the old and the new produce meaning. One must discover the latent significance of Old Testament texts in order to mark their correlation with Christian meanings. Thus one of the powers of the Bible is to force ironic readings of Old Testament texts, in order to produce Christian meanings. At this point, students of Claude Levi-Strauss may want to recall his dictum to the effect that "meaning" is the sense of significance we experience when we find it possible to correlate two different systems of signs (1966; 1969).

    The signs contained in the New Testament also produce a sense of dual signification, but the significance of a New Testament text is not created by an ironic layering or doubling of meaning, as is the case with the Old Testament. In the Old Testament a word or event has to refer to two different orders of discourse synchronically, or at the same time. The paschal lamb is first the Jewish paschal lamb, but it "really" refers to Jesus Christ as God's eternal intention. The double meaning of the words and events in the New Testament, on the other hand, is found in their application to a then and a now. We might say that the doubling of significance in this case is diachronic, except that it is a matter of the same event taking place at two different times in Christian history. Every Christian knows, however, that the events recorded in the New Testament were "unique" and that they happened "once for all." Nevertheless, it is just these events that are reenacted regularly in Christian ritual and recalled vividly to the Christian imagination whenever the New Testament is read ("Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"). This reenactment is also understood as an "event "("O sometimes it causes me to tremble"). Recreating these New Testament events by reading, recall, and response is an operation of memory and imagination fundamental for Christian thought and mentality. That vital contact with the originary past is what the church must repeatedly make available to Christians in order to live up to its charter as the vehicle for human transformation. This means that the marvelous intermingling of the unique event and its replication (a contradiction in terms, to be sure), or the sense of the incomparable Christ event as paradigmatic of the "novel" and the "new" in every Christian's own experience, is also a product of the Bible's cognitive equation.

    The Bible's intrigue as a heady cognitive grammar is hardly ever consciously recognized by those who read it as the Word of God. It is taken for granted that the two collections of texts are different because history actually went that way, and that each collection has to be read at two levels of signification in order to understand the significance of that history. One of these collections, the Old Testament, automatically invites layered meanings and must be allegorized in order to understand the need for Christianity. The other, the New Testament, requires an imaginary replication of events in order to produce Christian experience. It is not recognized that allegorizing the Old Testament is a setup for the significance with which the


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