Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What kind of γένος was early Christianity?

Ever since my master's thesis on 1 Peter, in which I argued, among other things, that Peter (i.e., the author, irrespective of 1 Peter's actual authorship) was writing to a mostly gentile audience and inscribing on them Jewish identity markers (e.g., 1 Pet. 2.9–10), I have been interested in the phenomena of first-century Christian identities. Lately, I've been flirting with a new, perhaps unnecessarily provocative formulation of the relevant questions. I'd be interested in any response from you.

In popular Christian lingo, we commonly say something along the lines of, "Paul's ministry among the gentiles converted pagans to Christianity directly without requiring them to first become Jews." This type of thinking about Paul is common and also affects contemporary reading of other NT texts (e.g., Acts 10–11). At its heart, of course, is the assumption (which goes largely ignored, if not unnoticed) that to become a Christian is not to become a Jew.

But is this how the labels would have been understood in a first-century context? If we were average, everyday, nameless gentiles going about our business in the agorai of any major city of the Mediterranean and someone in our family forsook the family devotion to Apollo or Artemis or any of the other gods to worship Israel's God and his crucified prophet, Jesus, would we understand this development as anything other than a conversion to Judaism? And if not (and I'm not assuming a negative answer, except perhaps for the sake of argument), is this because we, as outsiders, have an insufficient understanding of the relation between Christianity and Judaism? In other words, would Paul, or Peter, or the average Christian, have seen a gentile's conversion to Christianity as not being a conversion to (a form of) Judaism?

At the moment I'm reviewing Not God's People: Insiders and Outsiders in the Biblical World, by Lawrence M. Wills. His discussion of "Jew and Gentile as Other in Paul" provides a helpful discussion of a number of issues regarding the construction of the We and the Other, though the book as a whole suffers some important weaknesses. But he makes one particular comment that stood out to me for being fairly standard within New Testament scholarship and yet perhaps in serious need of rethinking. Wills says,
Immediately before and after Paul's formula of "neither Jew nor Greek" (Gal 3:28) it is emphasized that those who have been baptized into Christ are now children of God and children of Abraham. Paul, and other writers of the early church, quickly developed new language of being children of God, an extended kinship group. All ethnicity in the ancient world was understood as genealogy, and Paul bestows a new family tree on the converted gentiles. (2008: 187; my emphasis)

My problem: I realize that it won't do for us to ignore any differences between Christianity and Judaism in the first century; clearly there were differences between Jesus, Paul, and other characters in first-century Christian narratives and other Jewish figures with whom the former came into conflict. But how do we justify to ourselves and our readers the assertion that the family tree onto which gentile converts to Christianity were grafted (to echo both Wills and Paul) was new and not Jewish? How can Wills (or other NT scholars, for that matter) recognize Paul's appeal to Abraham (!) as a patriarch of the heirs of the promise and yet ignore the clearly Jewish markers delimiting Jesus' followers from others dotting the social landscape?

As a tentative hypothesis, then, I would like to test the formulation: In the first century CE (and so throughout the texts comprising the New Testament), to become a follower of Jesus was to convert to an expression of Second-Temple era Judaism (even toward the end of the century after the Temple was destroyed). I would understand the dynamics of these labels as analogous to the dynamics that would have obtained if a gentile resident of the Decapolis became an Essene and took up residence at Qumran. Clearly there are differences between Essenism and Christianity, but those differences do not amount to the former being an expression of Judaism and the latter something else altogether. Gentiles-become-Christians were gentiles-become-Jews, though other Jews (some of whom considered themselves devotees of Jesus) would have engaged Paul critically on the question of the terms of this "becoming."

What say you?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Theological bullying

Over on the wiki I use as part of my second-year Greek class, I've posted the following discussion about 1 Timothy 2 and doing biblical theology:

As I was translating 1 Timothy 2, I let my mind wander a bit inappropriately, perhaps. When I read the description of God as one πάντας ἀνθρώπους θἐλει σωθῆναι καὶ εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν ἀληθείας ἐλθεῖν in 2.4, my immediate response was to be a bit smug. "See?" I thought to myself, "The Calvinists must not read the Pastoral Epistles as often as they read Calvin's Institutes." Okay . . . a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. I was reading 1 Tim. 2.4 in the context of the Calvinist/Arminian debate about limited atonement, and in that context this passage clearly favors my point of view.

The problem with this, of course, is the same as the problem with the Calvinists' fondness for Ephesians 1 and the language of predestination there: The Calvinist/Arminian debates—all of them—are medieval debates and never form the proper context for reading Scripture. I came back to myself in the immediately following verse: εἷς γὰρ θεός, εἷς καὶ μεσίτης θεοῦ καὶ ἀνθρώπων, which our author clearly presents as the basis for the statement in v 4. Now, how "God is one" (or "There is one God," but I think this obscures the echoes of Deut. 6.4 that I think the text intends) applies to the question of limited atonement is beyond me; I just don't see it. So I have to reevaluate the significance of v 4, even though it so beautifully supported my own theological perspective.

In the undisputed Pauline epistles (esp. in Romans, but elsewhere, too), God's oneness is an important element in Paul's argument that Jews and gentiles are acceptable before God on the same basis, and Torah (which differentiates Jew and gentile and so violates the principle of God's oneness) is not that basis. The gospel is. So when Paul says things like "For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3.22–23), or "You are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3.28), he is talking about both Jews and gentiles, not every individual human.

When reading 1 Timothy, we'll have to make the necessary adjustments for time, place, and the ambiguities surrounding questions of our epistle's authorship. Even so, when we read in v 4 that God wants πάντας ἀνθρώπους to be saved, and then in v 5 the basis for this comment is the oneness of God (compare, among many possible texts, Rom. 3.29–31), I think we are compelled to read this passage in the context of a debate about a national understanding of election (God has chosen this nation or group as his people) rather than a debate regarding the scope of Christ's atonement (for all humanity or only for those whom God predestined and elected unconditionally).

If I'm really going to take the Bible seriously, I don't think we can only pay attention to when others are reading the text in an improper (or at least less proper) context; we also have to be constantly vigilant that we, too, read Scripture in the proper context as best as we can reconstruct it. Sometimes that means acknowledging that a text that seems to support our theology doesn't. This text doesn't oppose my theology, either; it just isn't concerned with the theological debates that in many ways defined the Protestant movement from very early on.

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