Truly it is a good thing to have heard a bard (ἀοιδοῦ)
Such as this, resembling the gods in voice (θεοῖς ἐναλίγκιος αὐδήν).
For I say there is no more graceful end (τέλος χαριέστερον)
Then when joy (ἐυφροσύνη) holds the entire people (δῆμον),
And guests (δαιτυμόνες) throughout the halls listen to a bard,
Sitting in rows, and the tables beside are filled
With grain and meat, and the cupbearer (οἰνοχόος), drawing wine
From the mixing vessel (κρητῆρος) carries it about and pours it into cups.
This seems to me the most beautiful (κάλλιστον) of things.
Analyzing Odysseus’ speech on the art of poetry, Bruce Lincoln suggests that the “ideological justification and idealized self-representation” embedded in the speech’s meta reflection is “a myth about myth: a story poetry tells about itself as a means to define, defend … romanticize … legitimate, exaggerate, mystify, modify and advance its own position.”Footnote 1 The concept of myth is multivalent; however, Hesiod’s meaning of mythos is instructive: “an assertive discourse of power and authority … to be believed.”Footnote 2 Whether from the edge of Thomas Jefferson’s razor or Acts’ portrait of the first century, mythos on the history – and prehistory – of early Christianity is ideologically freighted.Footnote 3 If the gospels and Acts function as myths that Christianity tells about itself, scholars must be careful not to reinscribe those myths as history. Or, as Lincoln irreverently states in his epilogue: “If myth is ideology in narrative form, then scholarship is myth with footnotes.”Footnote 4
One idealized representation of early Christianity that is continually retold is that there were no authors before the second century CE. That is to say, scholarship on early Christianity tends not to ascribe autonomous authorship to writers until the second century. For first-century CE texts like the Synoptic gospels, authorship is often described using the language of community.Footnote 5 Even if an individual writer or redactor is acknowledged, the author is imagined to be functioning within and for a group of fellow Christians akin to the illiterate and socially marginal Christ followers found in the gospels themselves. In such scholarship, these so-called primitive Christians are remarkably cohesive and uniform in their concerns: the apocalyptic Markan community living in exile, the Jewish-Christians in Matthew breaking with the local synagogue, the Lukan community’s loyalty to Paul.Footnote 6 The collective memories – the oral traditions – of these groups are recorded by their spokespersons and reinforced in each gospel with talk of ideal social formations or presuppositions about cohesion. Rarely considered are the technical and practical processes involved in producing literature in the imperial period – at least, apart from justifying the existence of these imagined communities. Prevailing Roman book culture dictates that the gospel writers were educated elites working within social networks of similarly positioned cultural producers. And the content of their writings reveals deep engagement with contemporary literary tropes and trends of that book culture, not the common “traditions” of an unacknowledged religious community.
This chapter reexamines this pervasive “community” framework for understanding the social world of early Christianity. Sometimes referred to as the “Big Bang” theory of Christian origins, it is characterized by three predominant assumptions: that the early Jesus movement grew explosively, that it was well established institutionally, and that its followers comprised almost miraculously bounded communities.Footnote 7 Different early Christian texts have contributed to this (modern) myth of the early Christian Big Bang. However, this vision of the early Christian landscape reaches an apex with Acts and its origin story, detailing the miraculous founding, growth, and development of the Jesus movement.Footnote 8 The approach I outline in this chapter proposes an alternative to the Big Bang model. I begin by “rectifying our categories,” which is to say, I reexamine scholarly vocabulary on the subject of early Christian social formations.Footnote 9 I also examine the notion of “invented tradition” in more detail with an analysis of the influence of second-century texts like Acts on our understanding of Christian origins.Footnote 10 This examination leads into a discussion of Paul and the shortcomings that attend adopting his “categories of ethnopolitical practice as our categories of social analysis” for the study of early Christianity.Footnote 11 Finally, I propose that our modern adaptation of the mythic Big Bang of Christian origins is informed, in part, by Romantic-era thinking on the inspired folk speech of primitive communities, which is also the focus of Chapter 2.
Without attention to the motivations and operational categories of those who interpret early Christian writings, the field risks uncritically adopting frameworks that are themselves artifacts of the scholar’s milieu and not that of the object of study. Any examination of the ancient world must necessarily include an evaluation of the history of vocabulary – not only the vocabulary of the text in question but also the inherited vocabulary or “language” of Christian theology, the Enlightenment, and post-Enlightenment philosophy that we use to characterize and describe our sources. More than a Gadamerian Wirkungsgeschichte that seeks the history of interpretation or effect of biblical texts at particular historical moments, such an approach is part and parcel of a larger project of redescription for the study of religion aimed at demystifying objects of study and treating social phenomena as ordinary human processes.Footnote 12 As discussed in the Introduction, we must approach early Christian writings not only as first- and second-century CE Mediterranean artifacts but also as artifacts of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century European thought.Footnote 13 Taking this caution into account entails contending with three interrelated obstacles that impede proper analysis of our historical data: terminology, translation, and anachronism.Our analyses and descriptions of the ancient world are thrown off course with the use of categories and terminology that are representative of the scholar’s social world and not that of antiquity. Recalling the Introduction, when Thomas Jefferson makes continual references to the “Platonizing Christianity” of the gospel writers, for instance, he is doing so through a particular lens. This terminology is specific to Enlightenment-era concerns about the Hellenization of early so-called Jewish Christians and Jefferson’s own anti-Catholic anxieties. The word “Platonism” acted as a stand-in for “the generic notion of ‘heathen’ or ‘pagan idolatry’ or … that of ‘superstition’ employed with respect to Catholic cult practices in the early reformers.”Footnote 14 This anti-Trinitarian fervor led Jefferson to conclude that the teachings of Jesus had been corrupted by “his inept and superstitious biographers,” “conniving Platonists,” and, later, “illogical Calvinists” and underhanded priests.Footnote 15 He bemoans:
The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Jesus … too plain to need explanation, saw in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build an artificial system which might … admit everlasting controversy, given employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power, and pre-eminence.… It is fortunate for us that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women, and children, pell mell together, like beasts of the field or forest.Footnote 16
In short, while Jefferson may have intended to use “Platonic Christianity” as a historical description, the terminology did not exist in antiquity and possessed strong pejorative connotations for Jefferson and his ilk. Even the category of “Christianity” requires analysis – particularly before being applied to sources, persons, or circumstances that do not explicitly claim the moniker (even then, taking such claims for granted is problematic). If scholars fail to recognize the ideological or conceptual baggage that can attend categories like these, it inevitably leads to imprecision and assumption. In many cases, such lemmas are folk designations that cannot be taken uncritically or literally.
Terms such as origins, identity, experience, ethnicity, diversity, and community are among the problematic signifiers that contribute to misleading descriptions of the ancient world.Footnote 17 Even religion is a fraught analytical category; the way it is employed in scholarship on the ancient world is necessarily anachronistic and is often enmeshed with modern ideas of individual experience.Footnote 18 This incongruity has to do, in part, with the development of the term in Western intellectual history. A product of Enlightenment-era thinking, religion is largely understood in terms of private or personal belief and, thus, discussed as if wholly separate from other spheres of civic, legal, political, or other activity. As such, it has no neat equivalent in the ancient Mediterranean where activities involving the gods and other non-human forces permeated many facets of daily social life. How should one classify, for instance, a binding spell (dēfixiō) that fails to invoke any specific deityFootnote 19 or haruspices called upon by Rome to interpret a loud noise heard on the outskirts of the city?Footnote 20 These classifications are further complicated when folded into questions of ethnicity. Juvenal, for instance, suggests that Judeans will “sell you whatever [interpretation] you want of a dream” (qualiacumque voles Iudaei somnia vendunt; Juv. 2.6.540) for a fee.Footnote 21 The Satyrica and, later, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass reference itinerant experts who offer various kinds of specialized interpretations and skills – the little Greek mathematician named Serapa “who knew the secrets of the gods” (Graeculio, Serapa nomine, consiliator deorum; Apul. Met. 76–77) or Zatchlas the Egyptian who animates avenging corpses (Apul. Met. 2.28). Such activities do not take place in conceptual or practical isolation but are a piece of a larger and more complex panoply of social engagement.
One strategy in recent years has been to dismiss the category of religion altogether as a tool for describing ancient data; if the ancients did not participate in activities that fit our contemporary notion of religion, then perhaps religion is not something that can apply to their practices and understandings.Footnote 22 But this approach fails to recognize the utility of the term as a category for scholarly use. By focusing on practices, religion can function as a taxonomy for specific kinds of action having to do with the supernatural (e.g., gods, non-obvious beings) and related anthropomorphisms (e.g., ancestors). Theorizing religion along these lines also recognizes it as a kind of human activity with particular contours that can be described and analyzed. Creating such second-order categories permits scholars to assess a variety of social practices in terms of their organization and how they are bundled with one another. In his work on the ontology of religion, Stanley Stowers suggests that “there are an unlimited number of ways that religious practices can connect with other religious practices and practices that are not religious,” and the extent to which religion is the predominant driver of a particular action would be “a matter of more and less.”Footnote 23 Thus, an Etruscan haruspex called upon by the ruling elite to decipher an omen would be performing a state-sponsored action as an ethnic specialist in interpreting supernatural phenomena. The degree to which this specialist is performing a religious act would depend on context – again, a matter of “more or less.” Exploring multiple social dimensions provides a much more thoroughgoing and dynamic understanding of our data. Such an approach is also sufficiently flexible so as to engage a range of time periods and cultural milieus, without the ideological and conceptual baggage that can attend studies bound by uncritical scholarly or folk categories of religion.Footnote 24
Applied to the gospel writers, we need not deny that they may have had some firsthand knowledge of individuals or groups associated with the Jesus movement, but this would need to be demonstrated and not assumed. Moreover, any knowledge of or engagement with practices associated with the Jesus movement would need to be held in tension with other spheres of social influence, such as professional or political interests. It is these overlapping spheres of influence, training, and commitment that dictate how to account for the content of the gospels and not a vague or exclusive appeal to religious groups.
A theorization of religion along these lines has the additional purchase of revealing how categories of religion are routinely imagined as inextricably tied to self-evident and uniform social formations. Language that focuses on putative and bounded social groups has had enormous implications for early Christian studies. In terms of folk conceptions, acceptance of Christianity’s later claims to cohesion is central to its Big Bang origin myth. Acts, for instance, makes continual reference to miraculous deeds inspiring spontaneous conversions – “the great number of the ones having believed (δέ πλήθους τῶν πιστευσάντων) were of one heart and one mind/soul (ἦν καρδία καὶ ψυχὴ)” (Acts 4:32) – resulting in the rapid development of Christian communities: “Fear (φόβος) came to every mind/soul (ψυχῇ), because many wonders and signs (τέρατα καὶ σημεῖα) were happening through the apostles. And all of the believing ones (πιστεύσαντες) were together and had all things in common (εἶχον ἅπαντα κοινά).… And from day to day … the Lord (κύριος) added to the ones being saved (τοὺς σῳζομένους)” (Acts 2:43–47).
Even if one recognizes the extra-ordinary or fantastic nature of Christianity’s founding and development in Acts, the “Christian community” remains a tantalizing prism through which to make sense of passages that employ language about groups. When Matthew invokes references to a chosen ethnē (“the kingdom of God will be … given to a people [ἔθνει] producing the first fruits of the kingdom,” Matt. 21:43; “go therefore and make disciples of all people [τὰ ἔθνη],” Matt. 28:19) or Luke speaks of the new Israel and the fate of the oikoumenē (Luke 2:1, 4:5, 21:26), it can be difficult to separate these claims from projections of social reality.Footnote 25 But the existence of religious groups cannot be uncritically accepted as they may be literary devices or simply aspirational; “what Paul and other writers thought some population had miraculously become and ideally ought to be is not good evidence for actual community.”Footnote 26 Again, we must resist taking our subjects literally or adopting their self-descriptions as evidence of fact.
Building on this foundation, whenever social groups are invoked as normative in scholarship, we must question why. As with Jefferson’s Platonizing Christians, we need to ask where and how we have inherited these terms and typologies. For contemporary studies of the New Testament and early Christianity, we must contend with our propensity for reinscribing classifications that are heavily influenced by German Romanticism. Chief among these is the concept of “community,” which is rooted in anti-Enlightenment and Romantic notions of a cohesive Volk inspired by the “spirit” or Geist of a group’s oral teachings. To assume that sources like the Synoptics emerged from the folk speech of established early Christian groups presumes a social environment for these writers that agitates against what is known about ancient authorship practices. It privileges a presumed social formation (religious communities) over an axiomatic one (networks of literate specialists) without demonstrating why such a move is warranted. Moreover, religion is not a matter of “more or less” in this scholarly construction; it is a matter of “only”: the author’s assumed religious community is the only considered social context, leaving more plausible associations – like broad networks of elite cultural producers – largely unexamined.
Related to the question of terminology is the problem of theologically interested vocabulary affecting the translation of ancient sources. Similar to importing presumed or anachronistic social contexts onto historical evidence, translations have the potential to skew our understandings of an author’s literary environment and strategic intentions. As a discipline, the act of translation itself presents numerous methodological challenges – this is arguably even more so the case with texts still used in contemporary religious practice. Just as religion can be a matter of more or less, when a word has present theological significance, it can be extremely difficult to divorce the concept from the way it functions in that religious discourse. For example, in recent years the translation of ekklēsia as “church” has been roundly critiqued; Jennifer Eyl, for instance, argues the term refers not to cohesive groups in the letters of Paul but the Septuagint’s concept of the “day of the [ekklēsia]” and the processes by which gentiles are adopted into the kinship of Judea.Footnote 27 Such specificity is occluded when texts continue to carry the interpretive freight of subsequent generations. Terms like ta ethnē (pagan), hamartia (sin), pneuma (spirit), pistis (faith), and metanoia (conversion) are particularly susceptible to historically imprecise and, ultimately, mythologizing translations because of their role in later theological formulae. For early Christianity, anachronistic translations directly affect our understanding of the origins and social development of the Jesus movement. As Eyl explains, there is a great risk of inscribing “a later Christianized understanding of Christian beginnings” when certain kinds of language are treated as self-evident.Footnote 28 As such, rectifying or reexamining our categories includes attention to terminology that can reify anachronisms about the breadth and cohesion of those with an interest in Jesus in the first two centuries CE.
Correspondingly, there is no identifiable and stable origin for the movement that becomes known as Christianity. The designation of “Christian” for texts like the gospels is not representative of any social categorization or explicit claim made by the authors of these texts themselves. It is not an emic category, and the writers do not demonstrate a concrete awareness that they are participating in something we might call religion. In fact, many scholars have reasonably concluded that evidence for something like Christianity, distinct from Judaism, begins to emerge only in the second century CE.Footnote 29 Thus, it is unclear whether the gospels constitute a representation of Christian beginnings or Christian “origins” in anything but the weakest sense. It is not until the second century that actors invested in developing a coherent tradition for the history of Christianity begin to codify earlier “sources” as Christian. Given this, we must be cautious when using terminology that has the potential to reinscribe the kind of myth of origins found in Acts. By evaluating works like the gospels independent of their later role as narrative tokens of the early Jesus movement, we are able to better locate their content – and vocabulary – within the scope and tradition of Roman imperial literature.
The Invention of Tradition
The relationship that develops between writings like the gospels and what comes to be known as Christianity in the second century represents an invented tradition. By “invented tradition,” I mean the factitious development of continuity between an institution, state, or other social group and a historic narrative, ritual, symbol, or figure. Invented traditions are designed to link groups to “a suitable historic past”Footnote 30 and largely adhere to the following principles: “a) … establishing or symbolizing social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities, b) … establishing or legitimizing institutions, status or relations of authority, and c) … whose main purpose was socialization, the inculcation of beliefs, value systems and conventions of behavior.”Footnote 31 This process of invention seeks to build a legitimizing foundation for present interests through reference to the past, whether that past be the adaptation of a particular ritual action (e.g., the horsehair wigs of English barristers), the elevation of a relatively marginal or subversive figure to the center of an august ancestral inheritance (e.g., Vercingetorix in France), or the reclamation of a previously neglected or forgotten artist or artwork, song, or writing as a representative cultural product (e.g., the collected folktales of the Brothers Grimm in Germany or the paintings of El Greco in Spain).Footnote 32 In antiquity, similar attempts at “laying claim” to status by making reference to the past are found in the divine genealogies of Roman emperors, the Atticisms of the Second Sophistic, the post-Aristotelian writings and biographies of Pythagoras, and later rabbinic collections of “oral Torah,” to name a few.Footnote 33
The search for Christian origins participates in an invention of tradition. The second century established a legitimizing history through first-century artifacts such as the gospels, letters, and figureheads like Paul and Peter.Footnote 34 By pulling these disparate stories, teachings, and characters together into a collective narrative, the compilers and redactors of the second century sought to develop a myth of Christian origins that was sufficiently unifying and novel so as to be worthy of a place among the panoply of already-established Mediterranean intellectual and religious traditions. To fail to recognize these efforts as the strategic maneuvers of later inventors or myth-makers – in other words, to believe Christianity’s own myth of origins – is to begin our analyses from a limiting perspective that accepts the first-century Jesus movement as a recognizable and cohesive social formation. This kind of classification is both uncritical and misleading; as William Arnal notes: “we continue to speak and act as though ‘Christianity’ represents a coherent, sensible, and informative classification for what we are studying when we study the writings of the New Testament, and this assumption continues to circumscribe what we regard to be thinkable.”Footnote 35 Among the assumptions authorized by an uncritical acceptance of Christianity’s myth of origins is precisely that the “Christianity” of the first century was spontaneous, cohesive, diverse, and multiple.
It is important to pause at this juncture to clarify that there are two distinct but related observations I am making about how tradition is invented for early Christianity and how the concept of community becomes a normative social construction. While the activities and interests of the second century inform how we have come to read the New Testament and other early Christian literature, this does not mean that we are unable to say anything concrete about the first century and, specifically, the social context of the authors of these texts. However, it does require that we disaggregate our approach to this literature from the model of religious community that has been so pervasive.First, there is the active and ongoing process of invention and myth-making that begins in the second century CE. This invention takes place on numerous fronts, including the process of assembling a canon of literature with the joint circulation of certain texts. It also takes place through writings like Acts, which takes the figure of Paul and composes a narrative establishing continuity for the Jesus movement in the aftermath of Jesus’ death. This strategy establishes Paul as a “pan-Christian hero”:
Multiple gospels alongside the letters and Acts show that Paul is part of a larger story still, that of Jesus, and specify and elaborate the objects of his “faith.” Bringing them all together both domesticates and authorizes the letters, verifies Acts, and interprets the gospels, which in their turn show us that Paul’s community organizing and rule-making was about Jesus; and so gives us a picture whose whole is greater than the sum of its traditional parts.Footnote 36
This, for all intents and purposes, “Hero-Paul” is not celebrated as a novel interpreter of the scriptures and philosopher. On the contrary: one of his speeches drones on for so long in Acts that he inadvertently kills a man who dozes off and falls out of a third-story window (Acts 20:9). Hero-Paul is a founder, a martyr, and a miracle worker. Biographical details about the man function as meditations on Paul’s virtues and vices, explicated through minor details.Footnote 37
More important to the author of Acts is to establish a life of Paul that “domesticates” him.Footnote 38 Acts spackles over the messiness of Paul’s real-life mission – as evidenced in his letters – and instead offers him a prominent role on par with the disciples in the establishment of the Jesus movement. Acts also applies the Big Bang paradigm to this invented tradition in order to offer an account of the founding and development of “the church” through Paul. Crucially, as Paul was heralded as the founder of Gentile Christianity and its proto-orthodox communities, the idea of “Christian communities” became increasingly normative. And, as other second-century figures like Irenaeus began to circulate the gospels alongside Paul’s letters, it added to a synthetic sense of Christian history whereby “[t]wo distinct anthologies are … juxtaposed, each imagined to comment on, and serve as an interpretive filter for, the other.”Footnote 39 Thus, a reader of the gospels and Acts may turn to Paul’s letters and accept that his addressees represented cohesive groups.
Recognizing this second-century invention of tradition helps scholars avoid some of the anachronisms, vague categories, and assumptions that have been the drivers of previous descriptions of Christian origins. The true origins of Christianity are in how its canonical texts were later collated, circulated, and established as authoritative, not in the mythic constructions we find described in the writings themselves.Footnote 40 In other words, we should not confuse the aspirations of the second century for the realities of the first. However, this theoretical approach has its shortcomings if scholars fail to hold it in tension with the need to evaluate early Christian literature beyond imagined first-century communities. For example, some have looked to the letters of Paul and, continuing to misunderstand his talk of cohesive social groups as actual and not aspirational, suggest that we must class all of his letters as second-century forgeries.Footnote 41 In the case of the gospels, others have proposed that we pivot from attempting to speak of specific churches (e.g., the Lukan community, Matthean community, and so on) and instead reimagine the gospels as literature written for “all Christians” throughout the Empire.Footnote 42 There has also been a move toward suggesting that the gospels were “less ‘bookish’ texts” and akin to “memory more than writing” without true authors.Footnote 43 Each of these alternative approaches continues to assume a mystified and miraculous beginning for Christianity in which religious communities are regarded as normative, multiple, and cohesive.Rather than begin by positing a religious community behind these works, a focus on literate practices dictates a new starting point that directly engages Roman book culture. While it is possible that the authors of the Synoptic gospels were associated in some measure with a group of persons either interested or actively participating in practices pertaining to the Jesus or Christ movement (e.g., meeting in assemblies, sharing in eucharist meals, praying together, interpreting sacred Judean texts), this ultimately remains conjecture. That these writings survive at all means that they circulated according to a set of discrete social conditions. Recent work by scholars like AnneMarie Luijendijk increasingly gives us a better idea of what these social conditions may have been, which I discuss further in Chapter 3.Footnote 44 With limited literacy rates, limited means of publication, and defined parameters of language and genre, we can speak of the gospel writers’ literary networks with some specificity. Evidence for strategic literary decisions is evidence for engagement with particular kinds of expertise and, therefore, particular kinds of interpretive networks. Stowers explains:
In antiquity, only a tiny fraction of the population was literate at all and a much smaller fraction literate enough to write and interpret literature. Networks or fields of writers, interpreters of writings, and readers educated in particular niches of the fields all formed highly specialized social arenas that produced and contested their own norms, forms of power, practices, and products of literacy. Banishing individual persons as writers from the account of Christian beginnings mystifies interests.Footnote 45
Approaching the gospels in this way transforms them from lives documenting the theologies of each “church” or “community” into an individual author’s account of the last days of a notable philosopher, such as the Phaedo, a collection of chreia in the style of Demonax, a depiction of the figure of Jesus as a teacher of ethics, or a Jesus as an epic hero establishing divine lineage and authority in style of the Aeneid, and so on.Footnote 46 Attention to the strategic literary decisions of these authors opens up entirely new avenues of investigation that focus on the sort of networks that fostered this kind of literature, not the type of mirror reading onto communities characteristic of Romantic methodologies.
Writing networks are not the social formations that scholars of the New Testament are typically looking for when they speak of seeking Christian origins in either the first or second century. Thus, some questions naturally arise from this approach; chief among them is how to make sense of the groups to which Paul is writing. After all, Paul is our earliest source for evidence of the Jesus movement. Are his letters not evidence that there are some recognizably Christian “communities” in the first century? Paul’s letters offer an interesting case study in how assumptions about community have affected scholarship on Christian origins. Acts’ “Hero-Paul” elevated him from one among many interpreters of sacred books in a competitive field of first-century religious specialists to the founder of Gentile Christianity. However, a reexamination of the rhetoric of group dynamics in Paul’s letters reveals that Hero-Paul is also a mythic construction.
“Hero-Paul”: A Case Study
The New Testament, a product of second- and fourth-century development, constructs a myth of origins for Christianity that continues to be immensely influential in both theological and secular circles. The contours of this account are familiar: following Jesus’ death, the disciples established the first church, and then, an apostolic mission of teaching and conversion spread the movement rapidly throughout the Empire. This missionizing activity culminated in the founding and development of the so-called early churches. Acts informs this perspective by continually invoking groupist rhetoric.Footnote 47 This tandem reading reinforces the idea that the practices, interpretive innovations, and writings of what comes to be known as Christianity emanated from an identifiable, powerful genesis. Implicit in this theory is the premise that Christianity materialized in a manner otherwise unprecedented in comparison with the origin stories of other “new religious movements.”Footnote 48 Certainly, in order for there to have been thousands converted in a single day, as claimed by Acts 21:20, the growth rate of the movement would have to have been nothing short of miraculous.Footnote 49
A similar account can be brought to bear on the letters of Paul – despite scholarship increasingly recognizing Paul’s strategic license in constructing a myth of origins for his audience. While Paul boasts of the numbers of those “in Christ” (Rom. 12:5), it is far from clear that these people share a mutual awareness or acceptance of this designation. What is clear is that Paul was actively engaged in an ongoing struggle, both to obtain authority and to coalesce disparate social actors into a more cohesive unit. Among the many methods in his toolkit were the authority and interpretation of Mosaic law (e.g., Rom. 3–4; Gal. 3), appeals to popular philosophical motifs (e.g., Rom. 7; 1 Cor. 12), shared narratives on cultural decline (e.g., Rom. 1–3), instruction on the performance of particular ritual actions like baptism (e.g., Rom. 6), requests for sponsorship and funds (e.g., 2 Cor. 9), the use of highly charged conceptual categories such as ekklēsia, and moments of pique when news of quarrels and rupture seemingly goad him into invective (e.g., Gal. 3:1). Many of these rhetorical strategies are constituent of Paul’s larger project of religious and ethnopolitical group-making. He proposes that God’s pneuma is intrinsically shared among his addressees, binding them together.Footnote 50 The reception of his message appears to have varied. While Paul was corresponding with assemblies that may have self-identified as cohesive, his letters reveal that these associations were dynamic and variable rather than stable and organized.
In his work on estimating early Christian populations, Keith Hopkins avers that “most ancient observations about Christian numbers, whether by Christian or pagan authors, should be taken as sentimental opinions or metaphors, excellently expressive of attitudes but not providing accurate information about numbers.”Footnote 51 Relatedly, Paul’s continual use of language aimed at group formation can be understood as largely performative. When “ethnopolitical entrepreneurs” reify categories like community, assembly, or congregation, it is often in pursuit of “invoking groups they seek to evoke … summon them, call them into being.”Footnote 52 In other words, the deployment of certain categories in the course of constructing new social identifications may be part of a strategy for further fostering such relationships.Footnote 53
Paul’s coaxing in Galatians 3 is a useful example: chiding his recipients collectively as fools and “bewitched” (3:1, 3), he launches into a series of rhetorical questions that serve as hopeful reminders that they are supposed to be one in Christ, unified by pneuma, their “experiences” (pathē) and miracles (3:4–5, 26–28). Paul then outlines his myth of origins for Gentiles baptized “in(to) Christ” – namely, that they are coheirs with Christ and adopted into the patrilineal line of Abraham (4:1–7). He is able to draw a new ethnic map for Gentiles that ties them back to a shared ancestor, which emphasizes their mutuality. Attendant practices such as ritual meals or baptism serve to affirm and inculcate these ties further. This newfound affiliation asks that its members recognize a kinship in both genealogy and shared pneuma.
Paul also continually emphasizes their participation in a fated, Empire-wide movement as he describes his own mission. In Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans he reminds his readers that he received the gospel from the risen Christ and not from human origins (e.g., Gal. 1:11–12; 1 Cor. 15:1ff.; Rom. 15) and that he has been tasked with winning “obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the powers of signs and wonders (ἐν δυνάμει σημείων καὶ τεράτων), by the power of the pneuma.” Moreover, he claims that “from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum, I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ (πεπληρωκέναι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον)” (Rom. 15:19). One can see the roots of the Big Bang paradigm amplified by Acts in such passages with their focus on supernatural motivation, exceptionalism, and expansion.
Paul’s ethnically coded language demonstrates that individuals are capable of shifting their religious and ethnic identifications according to situational need.Footnote 54 For Paul – a religious and ethnopolitical entrepreneur functioning remotely in a competitive field – ethnicity is not a blunt instrument; it is an authoritative frame for achieving cohesion among participants, and one that calls for a sense of shared mind and practice. It does not necessarily follow that he was successful. Participants are capable of ranking their affiliations into hierarchies, establishing varying levels of association, breaking these associations altogether when prudent, or never fully grasping or accepting a message like Paul’s.Footnote 55 Even Paul variously calls upon his standing as a Ioudaios, a Pharisee, and one among the Gentiles (Gal. 4:3) when doing so proves advantageous (1 Cor. 9:20ff.). With such mutable social ties, it can be difficult to determine when information about a group is representative or rhetorical.
Despite a mounting scholarly awareness of Paul’s precarious entrepreneurial undertaking, religious “community” – and the rhetorical implications of that term – remains a common framing for speaking about early Christianity. This can be attributed, at least in part, to our lack of concrete data; Paul’s letters arguably represent our best insight into first-century ekklēsiai, and therefore, if we want to say anything at all about these associations, it is tempting to engage in an interpretive tautology that relies on Paul.Footnote 56 In such cases, his idealized portrayal of his audience as a community bounded by shared pneuma, participation in Christ, and moral perfection is accepted as genuine or actual. Scholars who uncritically accept Paul’s letters as representative of established groups tend to question why and to what degree these early Christians are following the guidelines of their titular leader. For example, the Corinthian letters are often treated as “poster child[ren] for the danger of divisions in the community” and not evidence that this group was only loosely affiliated.Footnote 57 The Corinthians likely never possessed the kind of commonality in mind and practice characteristic of a community. Rather than accept that Paul was only variously successful in his attempts to coalesce those to whom he was writing, scholars often focus on the possibility that “outsiders” inveigled the Corinthians away from Paul’s brand of proto-Christianity. This assumption trades on notions of orthodoxy and heresy, the initial acceptance of Paul’s message, and spontaneous social organization.Footnote 58
On the whole, the mass conversions and miraculously established churches of Acts tend to receive more scrutiny than Paul’s ekklēsiai. It is not uncommon to find scholarship pondering the “Christ-believing influencers in the Galatian communities” muddying Paul’s message among his people.Footnote 59 In this construction, the Galatians are a formerly strong group that had been sullied by an outsider and made weak, underlined by moments in the letter in which Paul asks “to whom are you bewitched (ἐβάσκανεν)” (3:1) and “who prevented you from being persuaded by the truth (ἀληθείᾳ μὴ πείθεσθαι)”? (5:7).Footnote 60 Scholars seeking information about the composition of these communities will ask questions such as to what degree does the group consider themselves Gentile Christian or Jewish Christian. It is also common to find studies that hypothesize the existence of multiple Pauline communities in one location “in communication and cooperation.”Footnote 61 Even if scholars disavow the aspirational or mythic account of Acts, acceptance of Paul’s rhetoric about communities in Galatia – or Corinth, Philippi, and Thessaloniki, for that matter – reinforces the same myth of origins. This misstep with Paul reinforces the perils that attend taking any of our ancient authors literally without pausing to reflect on the strategic function of constructions like “community.”
Among the problems with this approach, two concerns are particularly significant. First, as is often acknowledged when noting the occasional nature of Paul’s letters, ancient letter writing was an activity conducted by social actors according to particular needs or in response to particular situations. Letters are not simply containers of information. They reflect social hierarchies, contain carefully crafted attempts at persuasion, and follow well-established rhetorical and literary conventions. As such, Paul cannot be spared from scrutiny with respect to the categories he employs in his descriptions of social relationships. Paul’s descriptions of the ekklēsiai he addresses must be held in tension with his rhetorical claims.
Second, rather than gloss over messy processes like group formation, attention to individual acts – such as writing and what we know about the social networks that involve this kind of activity – provides an opportunity to establish a less mystified and more fine-grained historical analysis. Such an approach is not limited to “normative theological concepts parading as descriptive and explanatory social concepts” but is based on what is customary for the era and subject in question.Footnote 62 In the case of Paul, he is one among a number of figures touting themselves as specialists in textual interpretation, divination, and other so-called religious practices. An investigation along these lines would situate Paul in a highly competitive field of self-styled apostles, super-apostles, and so forth, illuminating a dynamic social landscape for the early stages of the Jesus movement in which something like the cohesion of the participants would need to be demonstrated.Footnote 63
Demystifying Early Christian Literature
The gospel writers’ interest in social formations – if they possess any such interest at all – does not offer a plausible account of the development of the Jesus movement(s) into what is now called Christianity. Indeed, concerns about the boundaries of normative Christianity are more akin to debates about orthodoxy and heresy that emerge in subsequent centuries of Christian history.Footnote 64 A brief survey of Q and the canonical gospels – the texts that traditionally constitute early Christianity’s myth of origins – demonstrates very little by which to trace the development of the social practices that must have constituted the institutionalization and spread of Christianity.The hypothetical sayings-source Q is often cited by scholars as a genesis for the Big Bang, a now-lost source used by Matthew and Luke that may have dated back, in some proposals, to some of the earliest oral traditions of the Jesus movement. There is very little, if any, evidence within Q for concrete social groups. Some scholars attempt to identify community language in passages like Q 12:33–34 and 16:13, which focus on issues of wealth and ethics:
Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and [an insect’s] nibbling (βρῶσις) destroy and where robbers break in nor steal, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither a moth nor [an insect’s] nibbling destroy and where robbers do not break in or steal. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart (καρδία).
No one can serve two masters (Οὐδεὶς δύναται δυσὶ κυρίοις δουλεύειν); for a person will either hate (μισήσει) the one and love (ἀγαπήσει) the other, or be devoted (ἀνθέξεται) to the one and disdain (καταφρονήσει) the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (οὐ δύνασθε θεῷ δουλεύειν καὶ μαμωνᾷ).
John Kloppenborg describes these passages as focusing on the “hoarding activities of the elite” and suggests that the message behind them is that the “Q folk” – an interesting turn of phrase Kloppenborg repeats frequently – are “not of the urban classes in which the Jesus movement eventually spread, but the villages and towns of the Galilee, where God’s actions and reign had everything to do with the basics of life.” He suggests that these passages “circulated not among urbanites, but among the rural poor, not in the Gentile cities of the east, but in the towns of Jewish Galilee.”Footnote 66 Yet he does not explain in detail how this material was circulated among these “folk” or how “this utopian vision was eventually effaced by the editing of Matthew and Luke.”Footnote 67
Broadly, Q scholarship has focused on an itinerancy hypothesis, that is, Q’s internal “rhetoric of uprootedness” of implied social upheaval.Footnote 68 Gerd Theissen, for instance, proposes that “the ethical radicalism of the sayings transmitted to us [in Q] is the radicalism of itinerants” who lived under extreme stress.Footnote 69 Theissen’s reading of Q was influenced by an itinerancy thesis within the field that extends back to Adolf von Harnack’s work on the Didache. Harnack argued that the Didache offered a set of regulations for wandering and impoverished prophets who traveled from Christian community to Christian community, seeking shelter, food, money, and other goods.Footnote 70 This imagined class of “professionally homeless preachers of the Christian message” is first encountered with the “missionary journeys on the part of Jesus’ disciples … the wandering of Jesus himself, and Acts and Paul’s letters.”Footnote 71 In other words, it maps the same kind of explosive beginnings advanced by the Big Bang paradigm. While these studies attempt to give some idea of the kind of social formation that may have acted as a delivery system for Q and other Christian materials, they fail to explain the concrete processes by which the messages and teachings of these itinerant charismatics and preachers would have been received and understood, why they would be appealing in the first place, or how they are then instituted by the supposed existing communities they encountered, and so forth. Even if one wishes to argue that Paul’s mission and travel support the itinerancy model often associated with Q, Paul’s evident struggle to establish cohesive communities hardly supports the expansive growth and stable formations imagined by Acts.
Relatedly, Mark’s gospel is of little help for those seeking details about Christian groups. Mark’s Jesus is an elusive, ornery figure. A purveyor of esoteric teachings, Jesus does little to inculcate community – Mark’s emphasis is on secrecy and silence (e.g., “And he warned them not to tell anyone about him,” 8:30). Jesus’ own disciples are unable to comprehend who he is or nearly any of his teachings. This so-called Messianic Secret greatly troubles those looking to uncover the Markan community behind the text. Representative scholarship debates how “the gospel grew out of a christological conflict within the church” as Mark attempted to “correct what it considered to be the dangerous or false Christology … Mark’s Christology is a Christology of the cross and is closely related to the title ‘Son of Man.’”Footnote 72 Such concerns are more characteristic of later debates among church leaders than anything Mark indicates to his readers.
Matthew offers a Jesus who calls for a worldwide mission (e.g., 28:18–20). Matthew is also concerned with ekklēsia (e.g., 16:18, 18:17), and his selection of the word ekklēsia over synagōgē is often cited as evidence of the “Matthean Christians” wanting “to ‘differentiate’ themselves from Jewish groups.”Footnote 73 A similar argument is advanced citing Matthew 21:43, with some proposing that Matthew wishes to establish the followers of Jesus as the new Israel. Among other first-century writers, ethnē/ethnos is a technical designation; Strabo identifies the Jews as one among four ethnē in Palestine, while Josephus and Philo also use the term for the Jewish people.Footnote 74 More broadly, it designates “a variety of specialized groups such as guilds and trade associations.” Ethnē also has precedent in speaking of idealized communities. Plato, for instance, uses ethnē in Republic 421c to speak of various groups within his utopian city.Footnote 75 To ignore these referents and conclude that Matthew is talking about a divide between Judaism and the rise of a new, “truer” Israel is to ignore the function of this term in its milieu and is tantamount to importing issues of orthodoxy and heresy back onto the text.
Matthew does not require a religious community to speak of questions of ekklēsia or an ideal Israel. Among the source material at Matthew’s disposal are the Septuagint, possibly Q, Paul, and Mark. It is evident that one of Matthew’s prime objectives is to clarify, via an interpretation of Jewish scripture, the mysteries presented by Mark’s obfuscating Jesus. Recent studies on Matthew have also noted that his Jesus can be read through a Stoic lens.Footnote 76 Matthew’s Jesus is a teacher of ethics who reexamines Judean law and engages in the same kind of intellectual interpretive practices we see among other Judean writers like Philo or Paul. Moreover, it is also quite possible that Matthew received his ideas about ekklēsia from his knowledge of Paul. None of this literary activity requires the primacy of a Matthean community. In fact, given the tautological nature of arguments that attempt to read Matthew’s language as a portrait of his fellow Christians (i.e., studies that use Matthew’s language to reconstruct an imagined community and then interpret Matthew through the lens of that community), reevaluating the literary precedents for his use of terms like ekklēsia and ethnē reveals that Matthew’s group-talk is a rhetorical signpost rather than evidence of literal communities behind the text.Footnote 77
The same observations made about Acts throughout this chapter also apply to Luke. Luke’s communal language is wrapped up with its presentation of a larger myth of origins. Luke presents Jesus as a figure akin to other well-known Greco-Roman literary characters and heroes. In many respects, Luke writes “more like a normal Hellenistic author” and, thus, “the idea of something that suggest[s] communal authorship [is] exposed for its oddness.”Footnote 78 In her work on Luke–Acts, for instance, Marianne Palmer Bonz notes the parallels between Luke–Acts and the Aeneid’s efforts to bring “the Augustan present directly into contact with the heroic past.” Vergil's epic “incorporated a complex synthesis of patriotic, moral, and religious themes in its mythologizing history of archaic Roman origins and of the divine prophecies that would read their eschatological fulfillment in the Golden Age of Augustan rule.”Footnote 79 The same themes of genealogy, eschatological fulfillment, cosmic destiny, and mythologizing of origins takes place in Luke–Acts and, for that matter, in Paul’s letters. And Luke was not alone in penning a “Hellenized Jewish” epic when considered alongside Philo, Theodotus, Ezekiel’s Exagoge, and the fragments of an epic poem recorded by Alexander Polyhistor (preserved by Eusebius).Footnote 80 While not in meter, Luke nonetheless can be situated within an established genre of foundational epic, bioi, and the novel, as I will discuss.
While the subject of this monograph is the Synoptics, it is worth noting that the Gospel of John elicits a dynamic and complex set of discussions about social formations, including references to Samaritans (e.g., 8:48, 52), Pharisees (e.g., 7:45–48, 12:42), and the synagogue (e.g., 9:22, 16:2, 20:19). Scholarship on the imagined Johannine community represented by these references links it to “Paul’s Jewish-Christian opponents in Corinth,” “the emergence of motifs that had a later flowering in Gnosticism,” or “inner-community controversy … in a period after the conflict with the synagogue had begun to subside.”Footnote 81 Of the four canonical gospels, John is arguably the gospel least associated with offering an account of the historical Jesus given its more cryptic and difficult teachings. Yet because of its strong presentation of group, it is frequently associated with the historical circumstances of its supposed community. Again, the vast and complex scholarship on this gospel is beyond the scope of this study; its role in evolving debates about the historical Jesus in the Romantic and Victorian eras – and the continued influence of these debates – is arguably a book in and of itself.Footnote 82 However, it is notable that John’s discussion of social formations does not lend itself to a sense of a worldwide movement. Compellingly, John concludes with a reference to the culture of books: “And there are also many other things that [risen] Jesus did which, if every one of them were written down (γράφηται), I think that the cosmos itself could not contain the books that would be written (οὐδ᾽αὐτὸν οἶμαι τὸν κόσμον χωρήσειν τὰ γραφόμενα βιβλία)” (21:25). With this ending, John invokes ancient writers, not mythic Christian communities. In other words, John reflects on a social activity in which he himself is engaged, not on an account of the mythic beginnings of Christianity.
Bruce Lincoln notes that, much like with religious communities, it is common for those studying myths to associate them with “specific, ethnically and linguistically defined populations” and that this orientation takes for granted that nations, “cultures,” and/or Völker (depending on the speaker’s discourse) are primordial, bounded, unproblematic entities and that myth is the equally primordial voice, essence, and heritage of that group. Myth and group are understood to be linked in a symbiotic relation of co-production, each being simultaneously producer and product of the other.Footnote 83 Lincoln recognizes that this treatment of myth in contemporary scholarship has roots in the anti-Enlightenment elevation of völkisch and the national reclamation projects of men like Johann Gottfried Herder and the Brothers Grimm. These Romantic-era projects possessed a strong political element, aimed at generating a sense of national identification; however, in the process they reinterpreted the myths they selected as the “reinstation of something ancient, eternal, and authentic.” Romantic studies on the Volksgeist of the German people, James Macpherson’s Ossian, or Herder’s meditations on Shake-speare or the Geist of the Hebrew scriptures were myth about myth: “It is not always the case that myths are the product and reflection of a people who tells stories in which they effectively narrative themselves … myths are stories in which some people narrate others, and at times the existence of those others is itself the product of mythic discourse.”Footnote 84
Indeed, Herder and the German Romantics occupy outsized standing in the intellectual genealogy of the study of New Testament and early Christianity. Herder in particular had significant influence over the History of Religions School and a number of the scholars discussed in the Preface: Hermann Gunkel, founder of Form Criticism, and Johannes Weiss, teacher of Rudolf Bultmann, who was the Doktorvater of Helmut Koester, who remains a great influence on the field today. In the next chapter, I examine the influence of German Romanticism on our approaches to the early Christian Big Bang and the concept of community. This study reveals that more than a product of Christianity’s own second-century invention of its origins, the persistence of the community model within the field has strong, and not always immediately evident, ties to eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century political and philosophical thought. Recognizing our inheritance from the Romantic movement helps us to see how we have arrived at such an idiosyncratic place in our evaluation of the gospels in order to begin to reconsider these writings more properly within their intellectual milieu.