Saturday, 8 October 2016

Who Wrote Hebrews?

The title of this blog post is click bait. I don't know who wrote Hebrews, and neither do you. But I can hazard some guesses about the context in which it was written. Here are some highlights from said guessing.

1) It was likely written after c. 50. Why do I think this? It's the reference to Timothy in 13:23. Assuming that this is the same Timothy that we know elsewhere in the NT, and that reference to him is not spurious, and given that in Acts he is shown as first entering into Christian ministry after c. 48 (cf. 16:1), we can judge it more likely than not that the text was written after around 50ish (using 50 as a good, round, number). Is this a hard terminus post quem? No. The text could conceivably have been written earlier; there's nothing ruling it out. But it does seem to shift the balance of probabilities to sometime after the Jerusalem council of 48 (known to us via Acts 15).

2) It was written before 70. In 10:2, the author asks rhetorically why the temple sacrifices have not ceased. Such a question is only comprehensible if they had not ceased. But they did cease in 70. Therefore the rhetorical question only makes sense before 70.

3) It was written to Jerusalem. The text is entitled Pros Hebraious, to the Hebrews (Hebraious being the plural accusative of Hebraios). We don't know if that is original to the text or not, but it's known by this name from a very early period. In fact, AFAIK we don't have any positive evidence that it circulated absent that name. As such, we can hardly exclude the possibility that it preserves data relevant for reconstructing the situation in which the text was written. And interestingly enough, we know of another group of early Christians who were designated by plural forms of Hebraios: the Hebrews of the early Jerusalem church (cf. Acts 6:1ff). In historical investigation, there are two things that I find hard to accept: appeals to coincidences and appeals to leprechauns.

4) The text was written by someone associated with the Hellēnistai. Again turning to Acts 6, we see the Hebraioi contrasted with the Hellēnistai. Both groups were Jewish and Christian, and the distinction seems to be primarily linguistic: those whose first language was Hebrew or Aramaic, and those whose first language was Greek. If the text was written specifically to the Hebraioi, it seems probably that this was in distinction to Hellēnistai, which in turn makes most sense if the author him or her self most likely identified with the Hellēnistai.

5) It was not written from Rome. In Hebrews 13:23, the author sends greetings from "those from Italy." This has been seen as evidence that it was written from Italy, which becomes identified with Rome. This seems unlikely. The language of from-ness suggests that we are dealing with people who originated in but are not currently in Italy.

6) But Roman Christians were present when it was written, and were quite possibly involved in its production. The statement that those from Italy send greetings suggests that the author was in the presence of Christians from Italy. We can more specifically suggest a connection with Rome on the basis of the fact that 1 Clement (which originates from Rome) seems to be familiar with Hebrews. I would suggest that the most reasonable hypothesis is that one or more Roman Christians were involved in producing Hebrews. This person or these persons then returned to Rome with Hebrews. One or more such persons was later involved in the production of 1 Clement. That this person, or one of these persons, was Clement of Rome himself cannot be excluded.

7) The text was most likely written from Corinth. We know that early on Hebrews was associated with the Pauline corpus, which combined with the reference to Timothy suggests that it emerged from persons close to Paul. As such, we should be looking in the heartland of Pauline Christianity for its origin. That means Greece and southern Asia Minor. Again, we note 1 Clement, written to the Greek city Corinth, and containing at least allusions to Hebrews. Building upon what I argued above, this makes a great deal of sense if the Roman Christian(s) involved in producing both Hebrews and 1 Clement knew that the former had been written in Corinth and thus could count on it having a special sort of currency in that locale.

My best, educated, guess (which is better than an uneducated guess): Hebrews was written between 50 and 70, probably to Jerusalem, most likely from Corinth and certainly not from Rome, by someone previously associated with the Jerusalem church as one of the Hellēnistai, with the assistance of one or more Roman Christians who lately were involved in producing 1 Clement. Note that with regards to date, the most likely expansion of that range is downwards, as the argument for 50 as a terminus post quem is actually weaker for the argument for 70 as a terminus ante quem (although earlier than that range and the Corinthian provenance would be called in question, as we have really no evidence for Christians in Corinth before 50).

Incidentally, of individuals known by name the best candidate here is Barnabas: he was associated with the Jerusalem church; his Cypriot origin makes him more likely to have been grouped among the Hellēnistai than the Hebraioi; he moved in Pauline circles; and he had a connection with Corinth. But I am reluctant to assume that the text was written by someone otherwise known in the tradition. If it was, I am very much surprised that that identity was not preserved. Barnabas was prominent enough a first-generation Christian that I find it strange that no one remembered him to be the author of Hebrews. I think it more likely that the author was a Hellēnistai who has otherwise been forgotten.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Marcion the Great

There is a form of historiography described as Great Man theory. As the name suggests, it sees history most fundamentally as the result of great men doing great deeds. Although largely and rightly discredited, it still maintains a subterranean influence upon historical thinking. Perhaps the most demonstrable instance in which it emerges in the study of early Christianity is in the role often attributed to Marcion.

Dating back at least as far as Harnack, there has been a sector of early Christian studies that sees Marcion as a major causal factor in the development of such things as the canon, doctrine, the episcopacy, church law, etc. He crafted a biblical canon; therefore, the church responded with one of its own. The church found his beliefs objectionable, and thus set out to clarify their own at a level previously unprecedented and to develop an ecclesiastical structure (the episcopacy) that could enforce these as normative and the church laws necessary to sustain that structure. Such arguments have been, and continue to be, made regarding Marcion's supposedly crucial role in the development of Christianity. Today, there is a small but vocal minority that argues that Marcion's Gospel, which the church fathers report to be an edited version of Luke's, was on the contrary a source for Luke's and perhaps one or more of the other Synoptic gospels.

Many such narratives are, if not demonstrably false, somewhere between possible at best and highly dubious. For instance, in order to judge that Marcion's Gospel was a source for one or more of our canonical gospels one has to judge that every single possible pre-Marcionite attestation to these gospels does not constitute such an attestation; the statistical probability of this being the case seems quite low, and that does not begin to cover the problem of parsimony provoked when we potentially multiply entities that look virtually indistinguishable from but in fact are not our extant gospels. Or, take the example of canonical development. Yes, it does seem to be the case that Marcion's list of what constitutes Christian scripture is the earliest one extant among our evidence. It does not necessarily follow that he originated the idea of a canon of Christian scriptures. That is a hypothesis, and it could be true, but the argument from silence does not seem adequate to establish that it is. And that's really all that the "It's the earliest extant, therefore it was the first to exist" hypothesis has going for it. Nor does it follow that his canonical list was causal for subsequent lists; post hoc ergo propter hoc is fallacious for a reason. It is in fact a very naive empiricism that assumes that because some comes first in an extant sequence it is both the first moment in that sequence and causal for what follows.

More fundamentally however, these sorts of narratives tend to suffer from the same flaw that Herbert Spencer identified in Great Man theory 150 years ago: contrary to Great Man theory and its obsession with the genius and autonomy of the gifted individual, "great men" are the products of history, and are only able to achieve what they achieve because of the situations from which they emerged and to which they are responding. Their greatness lies not in their individual genius and their creations ex nihilo, but rather in how they work with the resources available to them to respond to the problems of their day. No genealogical investigation into the development of notions of canon or the establishment of church hierarchy for the Great Man theorist: no, these are but the response to the Great Man. Marcion the Great, after whose titanic stride across the pages of history Christianity was never again the same, emerges almost as Melchizedek, without genealogy.

It should be noted that Great Man theory is not identical to discussing the operations of named individuals. Historians often can and do state that this or that woman or man performed this or that operation at this or that time. It is a perfectly legitimate historical question to ask "Did Peter contribute to the traditions found in Mark's Gospel, and if so in what fashion?" What distinguishes such questioning from Great Man historiography is that it recognizes Peter not as an autonomous genius nor a novum that serves as a functional deus ex machina, but rather his operations as one set of effects situated among many in a larger constellation of historical movement. This is precisely the opposite of the Melchizedek narrative, for Peter not only has genealogy but now is integrated fully into one. Such genealogy is precisely what I find missing in much (although certainly not all) of the invocation of Marcion in early Christian studies.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

When Will a Social History of First-Generation Christianity Be Possible?

A confession, if it need to be said: I love social history. I have loved social history since I was a child, by which I mean since I was an undergrad. I was introduced to and fell in love with the works of Peter Burke and, through him, the Annales historians. I entered graduate school with the optimistic idea that I would do work on the social history of early Christianity. As I trudge along, I find myself increasingly discouraged at the possibility of doing so.

I need to be clear: it's not that such history is impossible. Quite the opposite. The data is there, and so are the methods. Historians working on other times and places have spent two centuries working out the latter, and NT scholars have spent just as long working on the former. It's an embarrassment of riches. But social history, you see, is Historiography 200, and we're still struggling with Historiography 100. We're still preoccupied with semi-philosophical debates about the possibility of knowing the past. When I think about the preconditions of doing social history it seems evident to me that we cannot write such history competently until we have indeed resolved these interminable debates. How can we talk confidently about the social life of the past if we are not yet confident that we can talk confidently about the past at all?

Fortunately, debates about the possibility of knowing the past tend to resolve themselves fairly quickly, if one approaches them without prejudice. It is a matter of paying attention to data. One notes that even those who most radically declare that we cannot know the past in fact do not operate in that fashion. Rather, they cite past scholars, supposing that such persons really did exist and wrote the works attributed to them. Likewise, they talk about Jesus, and Paul, and Augustus, and Josephus as if they were real people. They reference past examples of misinterpretation of the past, thus implying that not only can we know those past examples but in fact that historical knowledge is indeed capable of progress: what we once misapprehended we now apprehend better; that in fact is a precondition of the argument from past historiographical failures. In practice, everyone agrees that we can know the past, and in many cases with great confidence. The inability of those who would argue that we cannot know the past to operate independent of such knowing is a powerful refutation of their position. It suggests that not only can we know the past, but in fact that such knowledge is basic to our existence, an inescapable desideratum for human flourishing.

So, what must happen before we can really, diligently, work on the social history of first-generation Christianity? First, we must decide that historical knowledge is possible. That's not hard to do: we need simply embrace reality. Second, we must set out to discover how best to produce historical knowledge. That takes a little more work, but we have access to many pathfinders who have already charted the way. We need only pick up and read. The personal need to work out for myself this step was in fact the origin of my second book, and ultimately this blog (the entire thing, not just this post): my own personal effort to work out an account of how we can know about the past with confidence. Third, we must actually produce historical knowledge, initially of the basic kind. We must determine who did what, when, and where. This is where I am labouring now, as are others: perhaps not many of us, but hopefully enough. Then, fourth, when those successive planks are in place adequately (but not completely: after all, with the exception of the first step but especially with the third, ongoing revision is an intrinsic part of the processes so far identified), we can expand our horizons in order to situate first-generation Christianity in broader contexts, the social included. But as long as steps one through three remain insufficiently trodden, it's difficult to imagine how step four can be taken with confidence.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

A Matter of time

Okay, so I've been gathering today a lot of my thinking about NT chronology into one place. Not the chronology of the dates at which the books were written, but the chronology of the events of first-generation Christianity. Little, if any, is original to me, but I figured that I would put it up here for the interested.

April, 30--Jesus executed.

Between April, 30, and October 31--the establishment of a collegium apostolorum in Jerusalem, which begins the work of interpreting Jewish scripture in light of Jesus. The persecution under Paul. Due to this persecution, the first significant expansion as Christians travel at least as far afield as Cyprus. There may have been previous expansion, as pilgrims converted in Jerusalem returned to their homelands (cf. Acts 2). This appears to have constituted the real foundation of the Antioch community.

October, 31--Paul converted.

34--Paul flees Damascus for Jerusalem.

41--the persecution under Agrippa; James, son of Zebedee executed; Peter flees Jerusalem.

42--Peter makes his first visit to Rome.

43--Mark goes to Alexandria (possibly: still thinking about that one).

44--death of Agrippa.

46--Paul's second visit to Jerusalem, i.e. the famine relief visit (cf. Acts 11, paralleled by Gal. 2:1-10).

48--the Jerusalem conference (i.e. Acts 15).

51--Paul before Gallio in Corinth.

57--Paul returns to Jerusalem, gets arrested and is incarcerated in Caesarea.

59--Paul sent to Rome late in the year.

60--Paul arrives in Rome.

62--Paul released from his first Roman captivity. Might or might not have traveled on to Spain. Perhaps also laboured again in the eastern Mediterranean. Also, the death of James the Just.

66--the Jerusalem church relocates to Pella (the one in the Decapolis, not Macedonia). This is probably just the core of the community. One does not imagine that every second member went to the same place, and I'd hardly rule out the possibility that many chose to remain in Jerusalem itself.

Sometime between 64 and 68--Peter and Paul are both executed in Rome.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Myth of Antioch

If one takes a course in Intro to the NT, one might be told with great confidence that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Antioch. This has become received wisdom in the discipline. It's also built upon a remarkably shaky foundation. As best I can tell, it was B.F. Streeter who really popularized this view. Streeter's reasoning goes much like this: the canonical gospels were all written in major Christian centres; all major centres but Antioch are ruled out by process of elimination; therefore, it must have originated in Antioch. He goes on to present a historical narrative in which refugees from the Jerusalem church fled to Antioch in 66 with what source critics like to call "M," i.e. the material distinct to Matthew's Gospel. Here he commits a strange move: his argument for why Matthew's Gospel cannot have been written in Palestine is that the distinctly Matthean material is generally "inauthentic"; leaving aside the questionable judgment about authenticity and the idea that it rules out a Palestinian provenance, the argument that precisely those parts of Matthew's Gospel that originated in Palestine rule out Palestine seems passing strange. This strangeness should alert us that something peculiar is happening off-stage.

That something seems to be the data. It seems that Streeter cannot deny that there is good reason to associate Matthew's Gospel with Palestine, yet is somewhat at a lost to explain why it cannot have been written in Palestine itself. For instance, he knows that the data strongly points towards Palestine. In fact, Papias's account of the origins of Matthew's Gospel is what allows him to rule out Rome and Asia Minor as the place of composition: his reasoning is that, at the very least, it shows that Matthew's Gospel originated in the east. He knows that the text is attributed to a prominent figure associated with the Jerusalem church, and that even if we judge that the attribution is false the fact it is to this figure, and only this figure, remains probative; Streeter must simply dismiss the data of the attribution. He knows that this is the most "Jewish" of gospels (that's why he rules out Alexandria). He is aware of the alliances between Matthew's Gospel and the Didache and the epistle of James, both of which are also attributed to leaders of the Jerusalem church. He knows that the data all tends in the direction of a Jerusalem provenance. Yet it seems that his broader historical narrative blocks him from making that judgment.

I would suggest that the real reason for this blockage is to be found in his discussion about the refugees who fled from Jerusalem to Antioch in 66: Streeter cannot locate Matthew's Gospel in Jerusalem because he has already judged it to be the case that as of 66 Jerusalem was no longer a major Christian centre. As such, it does not satisfy his conditions as a place of composition for Matthew's gospel. Now, I am prepared to concede that the gospels likely were written for the most part in major Christian centres, but not for the reasons that Streeter gives (namely, that these anonymous texts required the authority of a major centre to achieve acceptance). My own thinking is that only major Christian centres had the material resources necessary to produce such texts. Dashing off a letter here or there is one thing, but a large narrative text that would have likely been copied at least one prior to circulation; this to me seems to suggest something more in terms of communal infrastructure. Given the evidence suggesting that the Jerusalem church relocated to Pella in 66, I don't see how we can rule out that much of this infrastructure was reconstructed there. Moreover, if Pella was understood as a sort of Jerusalem-church-in-exile, then it's entirely possible that even on Streeter's own terms this would have been, however briefly, a major Christian centre. Not to mention, it's not like the Jerusalem church never rebuilt itself. The same sources that tell us that they fled in 66 also tell us that they returned, and that there was a Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem at least as late as c. 132. And this doesn't even begin to touch the obvious question: what if Matthew's Gospel was written before 66?

When we get into it, Streeter's argument for the Antiochene origin of Matthew's Gospel is really based upon arguments from what he supposes must have been the case, and then a process of elimination by which he excludes any possibility that does not fit with that supposition.  Positive evidence is almost entirely lacking (some possible quotations in Ignatius, the similarity with the Didache, neither of which seem particularly strong to establish the place of composition: Ignatius, because it's not like he couldn't have quoted material that didn't originate in Antioch, and the Didache because the argument that it is of Syrian provenance is itself quite weak). It represents the triumph of antecedent supposition. Rather than allowing the data to serve as a corrective to his supposition, he has allowed his supposition to serve as corrective to the data.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

On Luke's contradiction and knowledge of Josephus

Proposition the First: Luke is a bad historian, because at Luke 2:2 and Acts 5:36-37 contradict Josephus.
Proposition the Second: Luke knows Josephus, because Luke 2:2 and Acts 5:36-37 read so much like Josephus.

Wait a minute? How's that work?

I'm actually not sure. The interesting thing is that there are people who would affirm both these propositions. In fact, Pervo goes as far as to argue that the fact that Acts 5:36-37 contradicts Josephus demonstrates that Luke was dependent upon Josephus in this passage. Pervo's argument is that just as Luke mentions Theudas then Judas the Galilean in Acts 5, so does Josephus mention Theudas, then Judas' sons in Antiquities 20.5; thus, Luke is following Josephus here. I frankly find this a bit strained. Luke explicitly states that Theudas was active before Judas, whereas Josephus explicitly states in Ant. 20.5 that Judas was active prior to and his sons after Theudas. In other words, Josephus tells us that the proper sequence is A (Judas), B (Theudas), C (Judas' son), whereas Luke tells us that the proper sequence is B then A, with no mention of C. Quite simply, the parallels are not as evident as Pervo want us to think, and virtually require us to suppose that Luke misread Josephus. It is of course entirely possible that Luke misread Josephus, but when the very question is whether Luke read Josephus it would seem to me that any concession that Luke must have misread Josephus calls into question whether he read him at all. Likewise, it's far from clear to me that the reference to Quirinus in Luke 2:2 can be used to establish that Luke knew Josephus if it is also to be used to show how he contradicts Josephus.

The examples of such contradiction do not stop here. Yes, great, Acts 21:38 references "The Egyptian" who led a revolt in Judea during the mid-50s. Josephus apparently references the same figure. But Acts tells us that he led 4000 persons out into the desert, whereas Josephus pegs the number at 30000. Now, I'm not interested in which of these estimates, if either, is accurate. What interests me is the difference between them. Certainly, if we had independent reason to judge that Luke knew Josephus we'd have reason to judge that L. used J. here, but simply introduced this variant to the account. Sure. But if we do not have such independent reason then the contradiction stands to challenge the very supposition that Luke knew Josephus.

This of course is not meant to be an exhaustive account of the relationship between Luke and Josephus. But let's be honest: when people say that Luke gets his history wrong, what they really mean nine times out of ten is that he diverges from Josephus. And that leads me to wonder: can one simultaneously emphasize the contradictions between Luke and Josephus while affirming that Luke used Josephus?

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Why Chronology Matters

"[T]o discover the distance of the earth to the sun is a task for thought of the first degree, in this case for astronomy; to discover what it is exactly that we are doing when we discover the distance of the earth from the sun is a task for thought of the second degree, in this instance for logic or the philosophy of science." So writes Collingwood, on the first page of The Idea of History. The distinction between thought of the first and second degrees (hardly original to Collingwood, of course) has had me thinking me about why chronology matters. I tease myself, saying that my concern with chronology is the result of a vaguely unhealthy neurotic obsession, and that's probably true to a certain extent, but the reality is that I would hardly invest a significant amount of time and energy into the matter if I did not think it to be a worthwhile historiographical pursuit. Why is it thus worthwhile? What exactly am I doing when I discover the dates at which the New Testament texts were written?

I'll begin with a cautionary tale. These days there is a peculiar myth circulating the internet, namely that Jesus never existed. It is peculiar, because it is evidently false to anyone actually competent to speak to the matter, and thus it is really quite baffling that anyone would actually hold it to be true. It is a myth because it stands as a fantastic and incredible (literally, in-credible) tale that is propagated in order to give warrant to a certain ideology, namely a remarkably unsophisticated new atheism (I mean, really, one hardly needs to demonstrate that Jesus did not exist in order to reject belief in God, nor would Jesus' non-existence demonstrate that God never existed). Like just about any modern myth held by the grossly under-informed, its proponents love to adopt the trappings of the sciences, whether human or natural. In the case of "mythicism," as this myth is called (in a sublime moment of remarkable yet unintentional self-parody), the trappings adopted are largely those of religious studies, including but not limited to century-old and utterly refuted history-of-religion theories about dying-and-rising gods and other ideas long ago consigned to the dustbin of brilliant but disastrously wrong hypotheses (Frazer was a genius, no doubt. He also happened to be utterly mistaken).

Also among the trappings of religious studies adopted by mythicist pseudoscientists is what I call the "consensus chronology" of the dates at which the New Testament text were written. In this chronology Paul's letters predate all the canonical gospels. One aspect of the standard mythicist myth is that since one can read Paul such that he is not referring to Jesus as an actual flesh-and-blood person, it must follow that originally Jesus began as a purely cosmic and mythological figure who was historicized in the gospels. Let us leave aside the fact that is predicated upon a purely tendentious and demonstrably false reading of Paul. (Honestly, if one cannot see that this is purely tendentious and demonstrably false then one merely reveals that one is lacking in competence to speak to the matter. There are matters upon which informed persons can disagree. Then there are matters upon which disagreement indicates that at least one interlocutor is not qualified to be part of the discussion). For my purposes, what is more interesting is that this depends upon the consensus chronology, which runs from Paul to the gospels. If, as I have come to believe, Mark's Gospel predates and Matthew's is roughly coeval with Paul's earliest undisputed epistles, and Luke's roughly coeval with and John's about a half-decade later than Paul's latest, then things suddenly change. Suddenly the trajectory "From Paul to Gospels" becomes empirically unsound, in addition to the illegitimate conversion of that trajectory into "From myth to history." This doesn't even begin to touch the special pleading involved in rejecting a consensus position adopted by virtually every New Testament scholar (that Jesus existed) while accepting without reflection a consensus position adopted by most but hardly all such scholars. If we are all mistaken on something so fundamental to the discipline, then how can it be assumed without investigation that the majority of us are correct on anything else?

Chronology is often referred to as the backbone of history, and with good reason. If the basis of history is narrative, then chronology is its most fundamental building block. It is the outline of our narrative. Now, of course, we might present our narrative out of chronological order, much like Tarantino does in Pulp Fiction, but Pulp Fiction also reminds us of the importance of chronology: for it is only when one pieces together the proper chronological order of the narrated events does one fully understand what was going on in the story (also, does anyone else wish that Big Kahuna Burger was a real thing? Seriously). For good or for ill, we are forever trapped in the flow of time, and that means that our understanding of our existence takes on an inescapably temporal dimension. Chronology is perhaps the most basic way that we have of making sense of that temporal dimension when thinking about the non-repeating sequence of unique events with which historians are so concerned (the calendar perhaps the most basic way that we have of making sense of that temporal dimension when thinking about the repeating cycle of days, weeks, months, years, etc.). It is what tells us that if Paul and Luther both write at least formally similar things about justification, that Luther was influenced by his reading of Paul rather than Paul by his reading of Luther (and thus while Luther might be described legitimately as Pauline, Paul cannot easily be described as Lutheran, except in the sense used by Steve Westerholm to describe the "Lutheran" reception of Paul). It reflects our judgment that Marcion knew Luke's Gospel, rather than the author of Luke's Gospel knowing Marcion's writings. When we discover chronology, we discover the basic rudiments of human history.