Monday, June 04, 2007

Mike Bird Myth Buster

Mike Bird has piqued my interest in his recent posts on Christian origins, and in hopes of finally making it into the Biblical Studies Carnival (not really), I thought I would add my thoughts on the topic.

The discussion started with Mike’s superb remarks on the pastoral importance of Christian origins. Mike asks in this post:

Why is this important? Well, I find that many Christians operate with a default "myth of Christians origins" and skewed view of New Testament Theology. What is that myth and what is skewed?

Well, the myth goes something like this: In the beginning was "us" (i.e. me, since all the first Christians held the same beliefs that I did, they hated the same false teachings that I hate, my distinctives were their distinctives). Things went well for us until about 100 AD when it all turned to a schmozzle and we disappeared. But the good news is that "us" is back and we have brought with us a return to the pristine era of doctrinal purity. We are the gatekeepers of truth and righteousness and the boundary of the kingdom includes us and our friends. In the immediate sense, all before us and all apart from us are dogs and devils. (Note, this is a caricature and an exaggeration and I do not have any body or any group in mind).

Mike calls this a caricature, but he really is spot on. This not only reflects my own Christian upbringing, but I know many who are still card carrying subscribers to this myth. But this is not the only way in which a lack of knowledge of Christian origins rears its ugly head. For instance, I don’t know how many times I have sat in church and had to lower my head as the minister began a soliloquy of how the beguiling misfit Jews of the first century were the antithesis to the pure and lovely followers of Jesus. This bugs me to no end, it is not that I require that everybody find the New Perspective on Paul, and the related issues, as convincing as I (there are indeed good ways to critique the NPP), I do however, require that a minister should have at least picked up a book since the 1980’s, and thus be aware of the seriousness of the issues.

This brings me to the comments made by James Tabor about one of the contentions of Christian origins. Tabor states:

"The second grand assumption about early Christianity that I think we should radically questioned is the portrait of its clean break with Judaism and its subsequent harmonious (despite a few evil heretics) and unbroken advance into the second and third centuries."

I think Tabor is right here, and I think that scholars of Christian origins are doing some really good work concerning these issues. While I think that most students are at least aware of these threads in the study of Christian origins, I think that there is still an important myth that needs to be shattered, namely the diversity of ancient Judaism, or the diversity of the Judaism of the first temple (I am a little unsure of the best nomenclature to use here). This myth goes something like this:

The Hebrew Scriptures are a set of important religious texts that were precious to a group of people in antiquity called the Jews, or the Hebrews. (How you conceive of the formation of these texts is not really important for the partakers of this myth, but in saying that this myth is probably not held by any who study the Hebrew Scriptures in the academy, it is reserved for the more conservative branch of NT students, and of course many ministers, and lay Christians), in this myth these texts offer proof of a monolithic community that essentially existed until either the destruction of the first temple, or some might even posit until the intertestamental period, where the chimera of diversity sprung up unexpectedly. So Christian origins are said to come from this pure origin and splinter into competing groups in or around the first century.

So when Mike says this about the birth of Christianity:

Also, there was a genuine complexity and diversity in the early church. However, some forms of Christianity though diverse were not mutually exclusive, some groups were perhaps competitive but necessarily hostile to each other, some groups with divergent views could quite happily cooperate in a common cause.

I think we really ought to push the ramifications of this statement all the way back to the inception of the Hebrew texts and the communities that wrote, or compiled, them.

One of the things that caused me to see this sort of myth in my own thinking (was the brainwashing one receives when attending Sheffield; of course I am kidding here) was reading Barstad’s theory concerning the myth of an empty land. But as someone spending most of my time in the NT, what really caught my attention was the work of Francis Watson. In his Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, he argues that Paul as a reader of Scriptures picks up on the tension in the texts between the unconditional promise and Sinai legislation, and the tension between the law’s offer of life and its curse. It is not that far fetched to posit that these tensions are indicative of not only competing voices, but perhaps of competing communities. Whatever you think of the recent discussion of myth busting, I think Mike’s closing comments are not only warranted for Christian origins, but probably reflect the Judaism before the second temple as well.

I think that early Christianity, despite the complexity of the movement, was a relatively small and homogenous entity, and exhibited many more characteristics of unity and accordandance than is often recognized.

See Also Chris 'tea for the tillerman' Tilling's thoughts here.


Michael F. Bird said...

That photo is priceless!

metalepsis said...

I had a laugh making it!