Friday, August 31, 2007

Christianity v. Christianities

Josh asked me what I think about this distinction, which is just as trendy as the Judaisms that I discussed yesterday.

The same is true in this case. There was a Christianity of the second-century, but it wasn't what scholars generally call "normative" Christianity (by which they mean, apostolic or mainstream). Again, what a person considered "normative" Christianity in the second century was whatever expression of Christianity that person followed. No one expression of Christianity controlled the landscape, although many were battling to do so and consolidating power in the process. So there was variety, there were Christianities.

But to say this doesn't mean there wasn't "Christianity." Indeed, there was. It took its shape from several issues such as christology, communal practices like baptism and eucharist, methods of interpretation of scripture, relevance of Jewish scripture, sacralization of Christian scriptures, worship days, leadership and liturgical calendars. All the forms of Christianity in the second century were part of this web of religiosity, a religiosity that was consolidating in terms of the formation of Christian self-identity as something separate from (even against) Judaism and paganism.

So once again I continue to talk about "Christianity" in the second century, even though I recognize that this took on a variety of expressions. Here is an excerpt from The Thirteenth Apostle where I try to talk about this very issue:
The purpose of the Gospel of Judas was to criticize "mainstream" or "apostolic" Christianity from the point of view of the Sethian Gnostics. The Sethian Christians, whose religious beliefs I will describe in detail in the next chapter, were involved in an intra-religious debate that was raging in the second century as a number of distinct Christianities struggled for control of Christianity. Christianity in the second century was not controlled by a single church or a single hierarchy or a single orthodoxy. In fact, "orthodoxy" (correct thinking and practice) and "heresy" (wrong thinking and practice) were very relative terms. Who was orthodox and who was a heretice depended upon where you were standing. If you were a mainstream or apostolic Christian, you were orthodox and everyone else was a heretic. If you were a Sethian Gnostic Christian, you were orthodox and everyone else was a heretic (p. 5).

14 comments:

Pastor Bob said...

Interesting. Are you suggesting the debate over the validity of the Old Testament was part of Christianity or that the various Gnostic groups also accepted the Old Testament?

April DeConick said...

Bob,

There was a big debate about the OT - whether it should be part of the scripture, how it should be interpreted if it was. Marcionite churches ditched OT altogether and replaced Jewish scripture with the first NT (Luke and 10 of Paul's letters). Other churches didn't know what to do with Torah, which they did not observe any longer, so they focused on the moral commandments at the exclusion of the others. Then focused on prophets and worked lists of proof texts from them in order to connect them to Jesus' advent, ministry, and death.

Pastor Bob said...

Thanks april

What has really interested me as I've read Gnostic literature over the years are the mythic materials that say the god of creation is an evil god and in some of the texts say that the god of creation stole the material that give creation life from the angels of the real god/s.

And no, I wasn't required to study the Gnostics in seminary, mores the pity. I read them in college and have kind of kept up on my own. And yes, the language about the various types of angels is hard to follow until you get on board.

Pastor Bob said...

Also one of the early Christian subgroups believed that you had to obey the Torah. Paul's enemies.

David Oliver Kling said...

This argument, which I readily accept, of there being "Christianities" in the second century could also be applied today in the sense that with the discovery of these various Gnostic texts a new impetus is starting to develop upon the religious landscape. Although far from being revolutionary, there is the potential for a new breed of Christianity to take root.

Geoff Hudson said...

There always has been potential for a new breed of Christianity to take root, as for example in the US where 'orality' and interpretation have run riot damaging many lives, including my own, in the process.

But where did the Christianity of the Holy Catholic Church come from? It didn't come out of Judea. And I doubt if any extant form of Christianity did either - something that seems to be lost among scholars.

James F. McGrath said...

I think it is somewhat ironic to realize that among the Gnostics were some of the earliest Christian literalists. While some of them were quite capable of spiritualizing and allegorical exegesis, in Gnosticism's roots there is the taking literally of everything the Jewish Bible said about God, which led to the conclusion that this deity was inferior to the supreme God in the thinking of most educated people in that age. Those who emphasize "taking the Bible literally" today don't do so consistently - which is why relatively few of them end up as Gnostics! :)

Jared said...

Interestingly, I have heard a more "postmodern" critique of the pluralism used vis-a-vis ancient Judaism and Christianity. I do not quite recall where (it has been a while now), but for them it was a matter of merely displacing rather than solving the problem of "essentializing" Judaism/Christianity as a whole to creating non-dynamic, essentialized sub-groupings.

Geoff Hudson said...

Jared, what is anyone supposed to make of this?

Geoff Hudson said...

I wonder what the inscription CHRISTIANOS found at Pompeii would have meant to the residents?

Does anyone know where I can buy the book by Paul Berry, The Christian Inscription at Pompeii, Mellen Press, 1995, cheaply?

Nick Kiger said...

Geoff,

What exactly do you mean by "orality and interpretation have run rampant damaging many lives?" I'm just curious.

Jared said...

Geoff, I was merely relaying the jargon used to express the position in what seems to be a failed attempt of exaggerated mimicry or just good ole fashioned mockery. The issue from a postmodern perspective, which, April is completely right, uses pluralized grammatical infelicities abundantly, is not MERELY to express the variety of forms of Christianity (ancient, medieval, and modern), but trying to avoid reducing the umbrella term (here "Christianity," but also applies to Judaism, Hinduism, etc.) to a central or "essential" quality that, when you engage the primary sources more carefully, may not always be the case. So, the issue for them is that by pluralizing to Christianities, you have only solved the first problem (issue of variety) and moved the second problem (looking for an essential trait that may not always be in the evidence) to a series of smaller groups. I personally do not use the pluralized forms, and think that J.Z. Smith's concept of "polythetic classification" has some merit in that it solves both problems at the same time without having to turn to faddish jargon (although he creates some jargon of his own).

Geoff Hudson said...

Jared, you are going from bad to worse - 'pluralized grammatical infelicities abundantly' indeed. In any case what is postmodern, if not modern? So, we have various forms of 'Christianity': ancient, middle-aged and modern, do we not? In my understanding, there was one, and only one, original 'Christianity' that came out of Judea, with a completely Jewish basis. In Pompeii, they called themselves CHRISTIANOS, to my thinking, ANOINTED ONES - that is anointed by the Spirit. No academic that I know of has yet truly faced the challenge that original 'Christianity' was completely Jewish.

I can understand that for various reasons, political and social, there was a muliplication of 'Christianities in the second century. And Nick, I think the situation then, was not too different from that during the settlement period in the US when there was a muliplication of 'sectarian' 'Christianities', established with new ideas/doctrines/interpretations being invented to suit the social and political pressures experienced by different groups. The origin of the Mormons is an absolutely classic case.

Maureen said...

There's a big difference between "nobody has focused on the Jewishness of the first Christians the way I'd like them to, as far as I've run across stuff" and "nobody has faced this". It seems to me that you'd be better served asking for book and article titles than making broad assertions. (Unless, of course, you are volunteering to write the definitive study yourself.)

It's very likely that the whole question is too obvious to receive much time nowadays; it was probably a much hotter topic in the 50's. And I'm not sure how you're defining "the first Christians" or "Jewish". Certainly, God-fearing Gentiles started joining Christianity nearly as soon as they heard of it. Any group where interesting things are happening will draw people who previously had no interest in the subject; I'm sure there were pagans joining up with the Christians as soon as somebody's friend had nothing better to do than go listen to a talk. (You get a lot of total non-history buffs joining historical reenactment groups, dragged along by a friend or girlfriend. Often these people outlast those who first got them to show up.)

So sure, I'd always like to read more about Christianity's Jewish roots, and about the days when people went to the synagogue/Temple on Saturday and then met again on Sunday. I doubt this isn't something that nobody has faced. I also doubt that this is the whole story, even when the Church was still only a few hours old.