Monday, July 20, 2009

the art of finding the right words

I'm working through Everett Ferguson's Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987 [third edition, 2003]) with my students as part of my graduate course, "The World of the New Testament." And every now and then I find myself feeling a personal—even a spiritual—bond with one of the ancients on account of Ferguson's knack for word choice. For example, I have a new-found appreciation for Herodotus for one simple reason:
Herodotus in the fifth century [BCE] already assumed everyone could understand Greek, if it was spoken loudly enough and sternly enough.

Visions of Americans looking for bathrooms in Mexico (or France or China or . . .) are dancing in my head


adamlbean said...

I was just reading Ferguson in Early Christians Speak and came across some fodder for you on the Christianity/Judaism discussion. How do you react to these statements, which would seem fairly typical?

Α Part of Judaism.

Roman officials treated the church during the first generation of its existence as part of the Jewish religion, which had official
recognition as the ancient national religion of a people which made up part of the Empire, hence Roman officials took nο notice of the
arguments between Jews and Christians, as such, and intervened only to keep the peace.

Early Conflicts:Nero and Domitian.

Several factors perhaps contributed to making Rome aware that the church was something more than a branch of Judaism: the number of Gentile converts, the insistence by the Jews that Christians were different, the Jewish revolt of 66-73 in Palestine. At any rate, the first indication of a separate treatment for Christians came when Νero needed a scapegoat for the great fire of Rome in A.D. 64. He settled οn the Christians in Rome.

adamlbean said...

A couple pages later:

"The apostle Paul successfully waged the battle for the freedom of Gentile Christians from the regulations of the Old Testament law. The outcome resulted in separating the church from Judaism..."

Apparently Ferguson would say that this distinction occurs precisely when "Jewishness" is dropped as a necessary precursor to Christian faith, mid first century.

Rafael said...

Thanks, Adam. The progression seems pretty typical, especially of the era whence Backgrounds of Early Christianity comes (originally published in 1987). I don't use the language of Christianity being "a part of the Jewish religion." I prefer to understand Christianity as an expression of the Jewish heritage. A lot more needs to be said, but I think I'm finding expression to be a useful term.

Regarding Nero's use of Christians as scapegoats, I don't doubt that here (mid-first century CE) we're beginning to see some recognition that Christianity is something distinct, but I'm not sure that we can say Christianity is distinct from Judaism. Distinct from the synagogue? Maybe. But still an expression of Judaism. I latch on to one of Ferguson's observations that, I think, would have flagged the Christian expression of Judaic thought for Nero: the number of gentile converts.

But I completely reject the characterization of Paul's "battle" as being "for the freedom of Gentile converts from the regulations of the Old Testament law." Did Paul struggle to prevent gentiles from compulsory circumcision? Yes. Did he argue that scrupples regarding meat, its sources, and its sacrificial status weren't as important as supporting the faith of one's peers? Yes. But Paul still argued against things proscribed by Torah, such as idolatry, porneia, lack of concern for the poor, etc.

The problem, I think, with formulations like Ferguson's is that it leaves the impression that Judaism cared about the meat on your plate and the condition of your penis, but not about these latter things. Paul's proclamation of the gospel, in other words, certainly differed from other expressions of the Judaic heritage, but it was nonetheless another expression of that heritage.

Thanks for giving me so much to think about.

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