Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Rewriting Early Christianity

My previous post, as many so far this semester, are coming out of research questions that we are pondering in NT and Christian Origins as well as the related Rice Early Christianity Research Seminar (RECRS) where we are going back to ground zero and engaging in thought experiments from the primary texts forward. There is a sense when this is done that things haven't yet been sorted out. There are many tough questions, particularly about the years 30-50, that we must grapple with anew, without the Christian apology that has dogged and continues to dog the historical processes of reconstructing early Christianity.

There is also the desire here at Rice to provide an alternative seminar exploration to the newly reconstituted Jesus Seminar as the Christian Origins Seminar. It will be illuminating to see how the two seminars struggle with the same issues, and finally sort them out. We plan to publish our reflections, although we don't have a dedicated publishing house such as Polebridge. So we will probably submit to NT journals and see what happens.

As for Michael Bird's question about my take on Acts (he wrote in the comments on the last post: "Does this mean that Luke gives us 'reliable' history about the Jerusalem and Antioch churches? Just curious :-"), I have some remarks.

I am not of the opinion that has taken over scholarship - that Acts is a myth created by Luke with little to no historical value.

First, it bothers me very much that as scholars we rely on Luke's gospel for Jesus' words and even deeds when reconstructing our historical Jesuses, but declare Acts devoid of historical value about the early church. This appears to me to be a modern academic agenda to erase or marginalize the Jerusalem church and replace it with original multiple competing Christianities, with the most original represented by Q1 from Galilee. I have a lot to say about this figment of scholars' imaginations, but I won't go into it here because it is off topic.

Second, when we make a careful comparison of Acts and Paul's letters, there is much that they agree on or share similar knowledge of. The biggest issue for me is their agreement that the Jerusalem church was the authority on matters Christian prior to 70. At the very least we can say that if you weren't networked into the Jerusalem church, if you didn't have its blessing, you were in for a struggle.

Third, through careful historical analysis, reading against the grain, and the like, there are elements of Luke's account that can be taken seriously, while there are others that can tell us a lot about how communal memory operated in late first century Christianity, revising and remembering the older traditions in a certain nuanced way. So I like to say that Luke preserves memories of early history. It is our job as scholars to sort out what those are, and to differentiate those from the communal memory at the time that Luke is writing and his own agendas as a narrator.

PS...I met Mark Nanos years ago at a conference at St. Andrews, when he was just starting graduate school. I have always found his opinion on Paul refreshing since he reads him from a Jewish perspective, which is also my preference.


Bob MacDonald said...

Just a comment from an interested but distant listener - I also met Mark Nanos at St Andrews - does he live there!! Last year at Hebrews 2006. His books (Mystery and Irony) are the best unravelling of traditional opinion that I have read - it is good to see some things reframed so that the commonplace can be reconsidered.

Pastor Bob said...

It's been a long time since I was in seminary but back then Bo Reike said that Luke may have had contact with a house church in Jerusalem that included or gathered around Mary, Jesus' mother; thus the references to Mary both in Luke and in Acts.