051 Early Christian History

Scholarly assessments of early Christianity continue, unabated–illustrating, if nothing else, the perennial allure of Jesus and His first century followers. One of the most highly-acclaimed contemporary scholars, E.P. Sanders, now a professor at Duke University, sets forth his views in The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Press, c. 1993).

“The aim of this book,” he says, “is to lay out, as clearly as possible, what we can know, using the standard methods of historical research, and to distinguish this from inferences, labelling them clearly as such” (p. 5). Unlike some totally skeptical scholars, who insist we can know nothing about the Jesus of history, Sanders counters we can know a little bit.

He announced basically the same ten years ago in Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, c. 1985), where he admitted: “We seem to have reached an impasse in New Testament studies, in which work on Jesus can never be pronounced much more than ‘interesting’: occasionally provocative, challenging or even illuminating, but usually only ‘interesting’. I have attempted to make at least a small hole in the barrier, and to rest the main themes of the study on unassailable data” (p. 321).

After 280 pages devoted to the task, in The Historical Figure of Jesus, he sums up what he things we can know about Jesus, the allegedly unassailable data. “We know that he started under John the Baptist, that he had disciples, that he expected the ‘kingdom’, that he went from Galilee to Jerusalem, that he did something hostile against the Temple, and that he was tried and crucified. Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died” (p. 280). This list of knowable data hasn’t changed much, in Sanders’ judgment, in the past decade.

That’s it! That’s all we can know says Sanders. The rest of the NT, the vignettes and details, the Sermon on the Mount and the dramatic confrontations, when subjected to the critical eye of Sanders’ “historical research,” float away in the dissolving mist of faith and fantasy as the sun of enlightenment dawns. They provide little trustworthy documentation, he thinks, because “the gospels in the New Testament, are, from the point of view of the historian, tainted by the fact that they were written by people who intended to glorify their hero” (HFJ, p. 3).

What must be questioned, from the beginning, is Sanders’ definition of “standard methods of historical research” which allows for so little knowledge of the past. If we diligently scour away from the historical record all accounts which “glorify their hero,” what are we to do with most all that Plato tells us about Socrates, what Schlesinger says about JFK, the details Muggeridge gives concerning Mother Teresa of Calcutta? If we’re to delete the documents written by admirers, what about critics? Are they not equally untrustworthy? Then how about the disinterested observers–are they not likely to overlook important details?

(One of the things which struck me most strongly, coming to biblical studies after doing graduate work in history, was this: biblical scholars appear to be intensely committed, devoting themselves to intricate etymological excursions and meticulous analysis, and display enormous erudition when dealing with a text they largely disbelieve! It’s like a fraternity of physicists still studying the “ether” they know doesn’t exist but find fascinating insofar as it once elicited commitment from the scientific community.)

Sanders discounts, consequently, most everything found in Christian sources. If statements in the gospels agree, that means they were copied and are non-trustworthy. If they slightly differ, they’re labeled “contradictions” or “discrepancies” and rejected (though I was taught that historians judge slightly different accounts as the best validation of truthful testimony). Indeed, in Jesus and Judaism, he wrote: “material which can be accounted for neither as traditional Jewish material nor as later church material can be safely attributed to Jesus” (p. 16). Reading this book, one wonders if any collection of documents could satisfy the critical mind of its author.

For instance, Sanders grants that Jesus’ first disciples were probably Galilean fishermen, though he doubts Luke’s account of their calling, which says Jesus gained their confidence by telling them where to catch fish. Such couldn’t have happened, he says, presumably because it’s impossible to know when and where fish will bite! So to explain how Jesus recruited disciples Luke just “supplied one; that is, he made up a story” (HFJ, p. 120). Given Sanders’ “low christology,” necessarily portraying Jesus as merely man, he cuts out those passages which hint at the incarnate God-man.

So too with miracles. It’s obvious that reputed miracles dot the pages of the NT. But we need not, Sanders says, believe any actually happened, for the ancient world was full of naive and ignorant folks who explained the mysterious and unknown by invoking miracles. Lots of events were judged miraculous and miracle-workers abounded, so Jesus was hardly unique.

A few clear-headed intellectuals, such as Cicero, insisted “there are no miracles,” since by definition they are impossible. Cicero’s view has triumphed in the modern world, Sanders says, insisting “I fully share it” (HFJ, p. 143). Unlike Cicero and Sanders, Jesus himself was imprisoned in the ignorance of his milieu and seemed to believe in miracles, but he was simply mistaken!

Jesus clearly spoke much about the “kingdom.” Though Sanders devotes three chapters to the theme, he declares: “It is typical of the material about Jesus that his precise meaning is uncertain even on this topic” (HFJ, p. 200). In Sanders’ judgment, the kingdom Jesus announced was an other-worldly reality of ethical perfectionism, though He died expecting it to be somehow realized in His lifetime. Here too he says little not contained in his earlier work, where he devoted five chapters of to the theme, exploring the intricacies of exegesis and speculation, indicating why he rejects most everyone else’s understanding of “kingdom.”

This points out another tendency which distinguishes biblical scholarship. Much that’s discussed in works like Sanders’ deals with other scholars’ theories. To discuss a subject such as “kingdom,” Sanders must show why Schweitzer, Bultmann, Dodd, et al. were wrong. Almost always they will be treated respectfully, acclaimed for their acumen in disproving earlier scholars’s views, but then discarded for failing to rightly read the text in the context of ancient Judaism. Sanders, of course, assumes he’s finally found the truth–though some of us suspect he’s probably as misled as those he rejects.

Turning to the opposition Jesus faced, Sanders finds it overstated in the NT. The kinds of things Jesus said and did, he says, would not have elicited much opposition, so there’s no reason to believe the documents’ testimony. So after the crucifixion, his followers magnified the conflicts and controversies of his time in Galilee so as to justy their cause. (I guess we need to re-write Cherokee history–my specialty–to conform to Sanders’ methodology: it must have been after the removal in 1838, when they were determined to prove race-prejudice in Georgia, that pro-Cherokee writers pumped up the story of missionary David Worcester going to prison for defending Cherokee rights.)

Clearly Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, since he represented Rome for a decade, but Sanders thinks that to Pilate (unlike the NT record, with its dramatic reference to his wife’s dream and his own uncertainties) it was just one of many executions carried out at the time. Intent on evangelizing the Gentile world, Christians later transformed Pilate into a more suitable figure for their purposes. As Sanders wrote, in Jesus and Judaism, “The Gospels are all influenced by the desire to incriminate the Jews and exculpate the Romans” (p. 298).

However much one disagrees with Sanders, as I clearly do, one learns a great deal by reading The Historical Figure of Jesus as well as Jesus and Judaism. To understand Jesus’ milieu, his books provide much information. Sanders does fine work setting the stage for a Jewish movement in Palestine. In fact, his discussions of these non-NT sources are, in my view, the main value of these two books. Questions of chronology and Roman representatives are carefully treated. He also brings into his discussion most everything academicians have written in this century, providing an impressive display of learning–references to Jeremias, Schweitzer, and Bultmann abound. (What one doesn’t find, however, is any allowance for more traditional–though equally scholarly–views such as those found in Karl Adam’s The Son of God and The Christ of Faith).

Though Sanders asserts that his conclusions rest on dispassionate research, I suspect this book, like so many of its genre, tells us more about its author (and the highly competitive scholarly guild he represents) than the focus of its study. In Jesus and Judaism, Sanders yoked various other scholars’ theories to their theological stance, showing how they found NT data to support their doctrines. Then he admitted that readers “may well wonder how well ‘my’ Jesus squares with my theological heritage. I can explain simply: I am a liberal, modern, secularized Protestant, brought up in a church dominated by low christology and the social gospel. I am proud of the things that that religious tradition stands for” (p. 334). Though he thinks otherwise, it seems to me his portrait of Jesus is about what one would expect from one of his admitted theological stance. So, to evaluate his work, it’s clearly not traditionally Christian. As a contemporary philosopher, C. Stephen Evans, insists, “From the traditional Christian perspective, the historical narrative in the New Testament is not ‘mere’ history, but it is fully history. The Christian rejects the divorce of fact and value, the real and the good, that is so characteristic of modernity.”

Like Ernst Troeltsch, Sanders assumes all historical knowledge is provisional, much like the events we experience, and explainable on purely natural cause-effect bases. Intent on making history like natural science, seeking, as Richard Weaver says, “what is presently true because uniformly true, of what is abstractly true because generally true,” such thinkers fail to recognize that history “is the memory of all the past with all its uniquenesses, as they were expressed in the concrete matter which is creation.”

Such assumptions, of course, ban miracles from history. The Supernatural may be allowed room in the realm of “faith,” but not in the solid reality of history! If the modern historian has never seen a miracle, thousands of past witnesses will not persuade him they occur. What must be challenged, as Evans notes, is this notion of “history.” If God exists and acts in time, miracles may in fact occur! If God became man in Christ, a Grand Miracle in fact occurred! Historians are called to tell the story of what happened, not what they assume could or could not have happened. What happened in history, unlike repeatable events in scientific laboratories, took place as a sequence of unique, unrepeatable events. There is, quite simply, no rational reason to exclude, as Sanders does, the possibility of miracles or the Incarnation or Resurrection from history.

* * * * *

A professor of biblical studies at Yale University, Wayne A. Meeks, has published The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, c. 1993), which in some respects parallels Sanders’ treatise. Dis-avowing the possibility of discerning answers to specific questions regarding issues such as abortion, war, or sexual behavior, Meeks seeks to discover what Peter Brown calls “the ecology of moral notions,” a kind of collective climate which shaped the ethos and ethics of primitive Christians.

While many of us have thought the Early Church mainly focused on doctrine, as formulated by Councils in Creeds, Meeks says the thing that distinguished Christians in the ancient world was their morality. Many of us, naively reading documents such as St Clement of Rome’s Letter to the Corinthians or the epistles of St Ignatius of Antioch, have thought the Early Church was uniquely attuned to the Risen Lord Jesus giving eternal life to His followers through Baptism and Eucharist. Many of us, taking at face value admonitions in second century documents such as the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and Tertullian’s works, have imagined those ancient believers, as a consequence of coming to know Christ Jesus in His saving, sanctifying power, followed a moral code which was quite specific concerning such items as abortion and divorce. If Meeks is right, apparently we’ve been wrong! To understand his conclusions it’s important to note his methodology. To do this, it’s instructive to follow his reading of Aristides, an Athenian who was one of the earliest apologists. By way of defending the faith, Meeks says Aristides wrote “an apology in the form of comparative ethnography–capitalizing on the fad for comparing customs and religions that was prominent in the age of Hadrian–and he has made morality the centerpiece of his idealized description” (p. 9).

Consulting Aristides’ Apology, however, I discover that only one-nineteenth of the treatise is devoted to morality! Much attention is given to refuting polytheism, pointing out the reasonableness of monotheism. Aristides strongly asserts his faith in Christ, giving a creedal-style affirmation concerning His divine nature. Certainly he does, in short slice of his treatise, point to the Christians’ high moral standards as a validation for the faith.

It is, however, less than self-evident that Aristides “made morality the centerpiece of his idealized description.” Endeavoring to prove his case, Meeks also notes the “kinship language–calling one another ‘brother,’ ‘sister,’ ‘parent,’ ‘child,’ a practice to which Aristides alludes–pictures the displacement of the natural family by new relationships and obligations” (p. 12). (That conclusion would have astounded the Nazarenes I knew as a youth, for we all called one another “brother” and “sister” without in the least imagining that displaced our natural families! In fact, I cannot imagine anything more factually flawed than such a judgment!)

I stress Meeks’ use of Aristides simply to show how he constructs a questionable case, both in his selective use of evidence and his understanding of religious communities. However, as long as one reads with reservations, aware of the thesis Meeks seeks to develop, much may be learned from this text. Suitably forewarned, let’s consider his case.

He focuses on the moral implications of conversion. Baptism symbolized the cleansing from moral filth and the emergence of a new creature attuned to a higher ethic. Believers were frequently reminded of their obligation to be true to their baptismal vows. This meant they lived in a world they both loved and hated, seeking to embrace it as God’s creation while drawing apart from its evils. They talked much of virtues and vices, using the “language of obligation.”

Such virtues and vices sound much like those celebrated by non-Christian philosophers, yet the Christians seemed to think their way of life superior. This puzzles Meeks, so he declares “what made the difference must have been principally the context” (p. 84), their “context,” their concern for God, Christ, and Scripture.

To live a life worthy of God, to do His will, certainly dominated much Christian discourse. According to Plutarch, Plato insisted “that God . . . offers himself to all as a pattern of every excellence, thus rendering human virtue, which is in some sort an assimilation to himself, accessible to all who can ‘follow God'” (p. 150). Whereas not many pagans could testify to such “assimilation,” Christians declared they could, through Christ, know God and do His will.

In his final chapter, Meeks makes proposals for modern Christians. He sets forth seven theses. First, “Making morals and making community are one, dialectical process” (p. 213). Moral convictions emerge from communal life, not inherited rules or rational reflection. This is, clearly, Meeks’ view, but I do not find it validated in the greatest of the Church Fathers who took injunctions in the Ten Commandments and Sermon on the Mount as timeless truths to follow.

Second, “A Christian community must be grounded in the past” (p. 214). Unlike Marcion, early Christians found Hebrew scriptures and tradition extremely helpful in casting moral codes. Third, “The church’s rootage in Israel is a privileged dimension of its past” (p. 214). The limits of Judaism were expanded and transformed by early Christians.

Fourth, “Faithfulness ought not be confused with nostalgia” (p. 215). This explains Meeks’ view that we cannot construct a New Testament ethic, that answers to questions such as abortion which sufficed in earlier eras cannot be repeated in ours. What seems problematic to me, however, is the notion that firm principles, convictions concerning right and wrong behavior, are nostalgic rather than normative.

Fifth, “Christian ethics mast be polyphonic” (p. 216). Even in ethics, diversity must be respected and celebrated! To one who knows how intensely the Early Church contended for unity, demanding consensus concerning faith and morals, Meeks’ celebration of “polyphony” smacks more of modernity’s infatuation with “pluralism” than historical truth.

Sixth, “Moral confidence, not moral certainty, is what we require” (p. 217). Do what seems right, knowing it may be wrong! Seventh, “God tends to surprise” (p. 218). The “faithful hermeneutic of the Pauline kind,” Meeks thinks, encourages us to cheerfully engage in “the process of inventing Christian–and human–morality” (p. 219). Again, Meeks manages to outfit a “Christian” attire in modern clothing, put together a “Christian” attire which looks quite modern, but I find little evidence that such relativism permeated the Early Church.

Meeks clearly shares some of the teleological views of Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the most influential contemporary ethicists, who argues (in works such as After Virtue) that moral convictions emerge in communities, enabling them to function smoothly, and slowly change with changing conditions. Those of us who advocate more of a natural law or divine law approach find MacIntyre (and thus Meeks) at times too relativistic and situational.


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