Advancing religious literacy

Fall Meeting 2009

On the Voting Results for The Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins

Stephen J. Patterson, Chair

From The Fourth R
Volume 23-1
January-February 2010

On October 16–17 the Jesus Seminar on Christian origins convened for an historic meeting. On the agenda was a review of one of the most influential books in the last century on the subject of Christian origins: Trajectories Through Early Christianity, published in 1971 by James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester. The ideas and approach of this volume influenced a generation of scholars who worked with Robinson and Koester at Claremont and Harvard, respectively, and shaped the discussion of Christian beginnings around the question of diversity in early Christian ideas and practice. Its central claim is that nascent Christianity did not begin as a single phenomenon, but as disparate groups of Jesus-followers, each with a distinctive way of articulating the significance of Jesus—some focused on the cross, some on his teachings, some on the miracles tradition. In it Robinson and Koester challenged the notion of a singular, apostolic form of Christianity extending back to the earliest followers of Jesus, the apostles themselves, and instead posited a more complex and diverse set of beginnings. The discussion of Christian origins has never been the same. Now, more than thirty-five years after its publication, the Jesus Seminar gathered with Robinson and Koester to discuss the lasting significance of Trajectories.

On hand for this discussion were four scholars who came from out of the Robinson-Koester sphere of influence: Marvin Meyer, John Kloppenborg, Daniel Schowalter, and Arthur Dewey. Kloppenborg and Dewey commented on the significance of Trajectories itself; Meyer and Schowalter addressed the lasting effects of Trajectories in the subsequent course followed by Robinson (into the Nag Hammadi codices) and Koester (into Greco-Roman archaeology). Over the course of three hours, the seminar reconsidered its debt to Trajectories and the course it set. It many ways the insights of Robinson and Koester are now regnant: that earliest Christianity was diverse, not static but fluid, and rooted in the complexity of real, local places. The premise of the Seminar that Christian beginnings can be explored place by place, using all the relevant texts, regardless of canonical status, and drawing on the work of historians and archaeologists to create thick cultural descriptions of the world in which Christianity arose, derives in large measure from the work of Robinson and Koester. At the same time, we could see that Trajectories was really about texts and the ideas they contain, even as we struggle to de-center the text as a world unto itself, as though the followers of Jesus lived within texts, and not in actual ancient landscapes. We presuppose the diversity for which Robinson and Koester argued, but realize the need to push further into this question. The diversity of ideas and practices are now well known, but we have a long way to go to explore the more complex questions of identity and social formation in nascent Christian groups.

As the Seminar considered and celebrated the work of Robinson and Koester, we also continued to put it to the test in the study of one of the most startlingly complex and diverse venues of nascent Christian activity: Antioch. To set the stage for our conversations, we invited Magnus Zetterholm of Lund University in Sweden to join us. His book, The Formation of Christianity in Antioch, is the most thorough treatment of this subject in recent memory. Zetterholm above all tries to situate the development of Christianity within a thick description of the history, culture, and politics of Antioch in the first century. Of particular interest to Zetterholm is the question of how Christianity, in that particular place, became a distinct religious com- munity in the Hellenistic world, and no longer a sect of Judaism. He argues that the split between Judaism and Christianity happened first within Christianity itself, and that a prime illustration of this parting and its causes is the incident at Antioch recounted by Paul in Galatians 2:11-14. Zetterholm’s argument is that Paul considered uncircumcised Gentiles to be part of the Jews’ covenant with God, while James and his followers believed that Jesus-following Gentiles might be saved as Gentiles, but they were not to be seen as Jews and part of the Jewish covenant. So, in Antioch the Jesus-followers fell into two camps early on: one Jewish and the other Gentile. This would prove crucial years later, following the Jewish War, when Jews became the object of scorn in cities of the Roman East, like Antioch. Now Gentile Christians would distance themselves from Jewish Christians and at the same time lay claim to the Jewish tradition as its legitimate heir.

Zetterholm’s work is premised on the “new Paul,” a view of the apostle that sees him as little interested in rejecting Judaism and more focused on the inclusion of Gentiles in the Jesus movement. It is a view that was tested in Mark Nanos’ paper on the conflict between Paul and James in Antioch. Like Zetterholm, Nanos believes that this conflict was over the status of Gentiles, not the validity of the Jewish Law. In fact, Nanos reasonably argued that we should understand the Antioch incident as an event in the life of the Jewish synagogues of Antioch, not a Christian “church.”

Paul would have been making his case for the inclusion of Gentiles not to some fully differentiated Antiochene “church,” but to the Jewish community, of which the Jesus- followers were still a subset. When put to a vote, the fellows affirmed this view (.81/red). They also agreed with Nanos that Paul’s determination to include Gentiles as Gentiles reflected his view that the end of history had come, and that it was therefore time for the Gentiles to be gathered in to worship the one true God (.71/pink). Again, Paul was not leaving Judaism for Christianity; he was bringing the Gentiles into the Jewish fold. The resulting community would need to be ethnically mixed if it was to reflect properly the final reign of God. When Paul speaks of “the truth of the gospel” in Galatians 2:14, it is this ethnic diversity to which he is referring (.83/red).

In another take on the Antioch affair, Brigitte Kahl helped the Seminar to see how narrow our usual thinking about Paul’s conflict with James has been. Even Zetterholm and Nanos see the conflict as mostly theological in nature. But Kahl argued that the mixed Jewish/Gentile table fellow- ship Paul was proposing would have had profoundly political implications as well. If the meal had been conducted along Jewish lines, she noted, it would have included no customary prayers on behalf of the emperor. Antiochenes were used to Jews omitting this customary show of fidelity to the empire, as their loyalties were understood to be demonstrated vicariously through the temple in Jerusalem. But to include Gentiles in such meals, and to encourage them to pledge loyalty to the one true Lord (and not to Caesar), would have been explosive. Trying for a modern analogy to the situation Kahl was describing, Nanos suggested that it was a little like draft dodgers joining Amish communities in the 1960s. Perhaps so. In any event, the fellows generally affirmed Kahl’s theses (.71/pink), opening the way to exploring further the relationship between Paul’s communities and the Roman Empire.

In a final paper the seminar turned once again to the Didache for a description of at least one variety of nascent Christianity in Antioch in the first century. Nancy Pardee, whose doctoral research at the University of Chicago was on the Didache, provided the paper. Like many others, Pardee believes that the Didache is a multi-staged work, reflecting the evolution of a community over many years. And like many others, she associates the “two ways” material in chapters 1-6 with the earliest layer of the text. But unlike most, she argues that this was already the text of a nascent Christian group, Jewish in its orientation, but open to the inclusion of Gentiles on the basis of their acceptance of the love command, to love both God and neighbor. The fellows were inclined (.71/pink) to agree. But in Didache 6:3 a new provision is added to this original material, prohibiting the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. This, she argued, would have raised the bar a little on Gentile converts to the movement, reflecting perhaps the so-called “apostolic decree” to which referenceismadeinActs15:22-29, in which Gentiles are admitted to the movement, but on the condition that they abstain from “what has been sacrificed to idols” (Acts 15:29). The fellows agreed (.76/red). If Pardee is right, then the Didache might give us another glimpse of the beginnings of the Jesus movement in Antioch, when Paul was still an influential figure there, but also a chronicle, if you will, of its migration away from a Pauline stance and its embrace of the direction being set by James and others in Jerusalem.

After three sessions, we are still just scratching the surface of Antioch and the varieties of Jesus-followers one might have found there. But the Seminar will do just one more session on Antioch, and then move on.

Explanation of voting

  • Black not true (0–.25*)
  • Grey probably not true (.2501–.5)
  • Pink probably true (.5001–.75)
  • Red true (.7501–1)

*Weighted average

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