Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jesus on the Road to Nicaea 2: the lay of the land

Christianity on the threshold of the second-century was very much involved in self-definition. And depending on where you might have lived, the Christianity you would have known, and the Jesus you would have known, would be very different.

Keep in mind that at this time there was no New Testament. Scripture was the Jewish scriptures, which themselves were still in the process of canonization. The Christians were reading the Torah and the prophets and the wisdom literature.

And the Christians were producing their own writings and these were circulating. Someone had collected Paul's letters into a little book, and that was traveling around. Books that contained stories and sayings of Jesus were also circulating and this was known as the memoirs of the apostles and also the "gospel."

The eyewitness generation was dead. The second generation was old and beginning to die. So they were busy trying to set down their memories and interpretations and practices.

The end of the world hadn't arrived, even with the destruction of the Temple. This delay continued to be a major problem, and two things resulted. First there was an intensification of apocalyptic expectations, dreams, visions, and hopes. It is in this period that Revelation is written, the visions of Hermas are recorded, and millenarian hopes emerge. Second there is a feeling of settling down and waiting, of postponement and the continued need to set into place a church as a permanent institution. So this is the period when different communities put into place hierarchies of power, and women begin to struggle to stay in power. The easy charismatism of the early movement is vanishing (or perhaps better, going under ground).

The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The Jews were trying to redefine their traditions so that they would survive in synagogues without the Temple and the cult. The Christians were part of this redefinition. The first generation had been Jewish. The second generation was beginning to experience turmoil and conflict in regard to this relationship. In the 80s, we hear about a serious conflict between Christian Jews and other Jews over how the traditions should be interpreted. Thus the author of the Gospel of Matthew reveals a Christian self-definition that is trying to win the Jewish debate and emerge as the new Judaism. This is probably taking place in western Syria, around Antioch. But then we begin hearing references in texts like John (I think from Alexandria) that they were no longer welcome in the local synagogues in the 90s CE. And the language in this text shows a community that has begun to define itself as something other than Jewish. There are the Jews and there are us, the gospel says.

I realize there has been the desire in recent scholarship to downplay the separation between Judaism and Christianity in this period, even pushing it to Nicaea. But this position just cannot be supported from the literature unless we turn a blind eye on half of what this literature says. The separation is something well underway by the beginning of the second century, and, depending on the community you were involved with, may already have been achieved by mid-second century (as we will see for certain with Marcionite Christian churches and the Sethian Christian churches and, I would argue, for some Apostolic Christian churches).

It is my opinion that during this struggle emerged a radical monotheism in the Jewish tradition which shut out the possibility of divine mediators, while Christianity developed further the earlier monaltrous Jewish tradition which reserved worship for the 'big guy' but recognized particular angels as intermediaries who could be called upon for aid. The Angel of YHWH is particularly important in this regard, as is the KAVOD figure and the NAME itself. All of these represent the hypostasizing of the hidden YHWH who was beyond direct contact. I'm not sure what to label this form of worship, but it is not the radical monotheism that the Jewish rabbis decided upon and enforced.

3 comments:

Pastor Bob said...

Dr. DeConick

Would you care to comment on the idea that the Angel of YHWH was used as the voice of or presence of YHWH in some OT books as well?

Pastor Bob said...

Including as early as the burning bush narrative.

Jim Deardorff said...

I realize there has been the desire in recent scholarship to downplay the separation between Judaism and Christianity in this period, even pushing it to Nicaea. But this position just cannot be supported from the literature unless we turn a blind eye on half of what this literature says.

Think how much worse we would perceive this tension to have been if 19th-century scholarship had not decided that Mark should be placed ahead of Matthew. All those unexplained "hard readings" in Mark would be turned into anti-Jewish slurs and innuendos, and Mark's emphasis of the Messianic secret would be part of it.