Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Community of Goods

I've been doing some work on the community of goods as of late. The term "community of goods," for those unaware, refers to the configuration of the Jerusalem community described in Acts 2:44-45 and Acts 4:32-4:35 (and provided with exemplary narratives in 4:36-5:11). In this configuration, we are told, there was an effort to alleviate poverty within the community via the redistribution of wealth. This was accomplished via the liquidation of capital assets and the distribution of the funds thus generations. My interest lies in considering what insight it might give us into the earliest configuration of the Jerusalem community. As is typical of my interests these days, it is not an end on to itself, but is subordinated to my work as a chronologist (a wonderful yet obscure word that perfectly sums up my current research focus). I want to know not just about the early configuration of the Jerusalem community but also to situate that configuration as precisely in time as possible.

One thing that I come across at times is the claim that the community of goods is a Lukan fiction. The argument goes something like this: Acts is presenting the early community as ideal, and this ideal fully effaces any past reality. Frankly, I don't think that this works. First, the argument is a non sequitur. An idealized presentation of the past does not necessarily fully efface the reality of the past. Second, I'm not convinced that Acts in fact presents the early community as ideal. Acts certainly seems to think highly of the community (cf. 2:44 and 4:32 in particular), but it also does not hesitate to note its deficiencies (cf. 5:1-11, 6:1-6). At what point point does a deficient ideal cease being an ideal at all? Third, if this ideal is so strong that it effaces reality in the description of the Jerusalem church in its earliest state then why is there no hint of this ideal later in Acts? Why does Acts not make any effort to integrate this ideal into his discussions of the Antiochene or Ephesian or Corinthian or any other church that he describes? Either the past is sufficiently strong that it can overcome the ideal in these later parts of the work, or the ideal and the past are not in fact locked in conflict at all. Fourth, the account really isn't that extraordinary. The utopian community that fails to sustain itself in the long-term is a recurrent phenomenon in the histories of religion and politics, and the idea that a relatively small group of people might engage in some efforts to alleviate poverty in their midst does not seem particularly implausible. Given that this argument against the occurrence of the community of goods is a non sequitur, the fact that it probably overstates the degree to which the accounts aim to present an ideal, and the fact that our descriptions of the community are far from implausible, I'm generally happy to conclude that probably was some effort in the early Jerusalem community to alleviate poverty via the redistribution of wealth.

So, now the chronologist steps in. I ask: when did this effort take place? Acts gives me some clues. Luke presents the origins of the community of goods as a product of the outreach that occurred at Pentecost, several weeks after Jesus was crucified (cf. Acts 2). I don't know exactly what happened at that first Pentecost, but it also doesn't matter. What matters most is what it tells us about Luke's awareness about the Christian past. Again, there is nothing particularly improbable about the idea that there was an early expansion of the church. The church had to begin expanding at some point, and there's no reason to think that this expansion was a latter-day event. Returning though to the community of goods, I'm not sure that we should place its origin here or rather in Jesus's ministry. There is some indication of a common purse shared by Jesus and his inner circle and used to aid the poor (cf. John 12:6), and given that the members of this inner circle seem largely to have abandoned their trade its not impossible to imagine that this purse was generated by the sale of capital, such as described in Acts 2:45 and 4:35. What we might be seeing in post-crucifixion period is not the establishment but rather the expansion of the community of goods.

In any case, it is notable that Luke situates all reference to this effort before the Pauline persecution that he reports in Acts 8:1b-3 and 9:1-2 (and yes, I am aware that there are arguments that the Pauline persecution reported in Acts is also fiction. Let it suffice to say that these arguments strike me as spurious, but that's a discussion for another day). I'm generally inclined to follow Riesner and Jewett and date Paul's conversion to c. eighteen months after Jesus' death. Dating the crucifixion to 30, Riesner then dates the conversion to around October of 31; dating the crucifixion to 33, Jewett opts for October of 34. Although I'm inclined towards 30 for the crucifixion, it's a difference that makes no difference for the present discussion. The more important matter is that the community of goods disappears from our narrative after the report of an event that occurs around a-year-and-half after Jesus died.

This timing is interesting, and it allows us to venture a hypothesis regarding the temporal limits as well as the causes of the dissolution of the community of goods. Acts 8:1 reports that the Jerusalem community was scattered abroad throughout Judea and Samaria, 9:1 intimates that some fled also to Damascus, and 11:19 tells us that they actually went much farther afield than that. Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch are singled out in 11:19, but that appears to be primarily for narrative purposes. He is signalling a shift in the narrative towards these regions. Given such, there is no reason to think that he is enumerating every place in which members of the community sought refuge. Cumulatively however the important point is that there is a retrospective memory that members of the community were scattered far from Jerusalem. One imagines that as they received word that the persecution had abetted some might have returned, but presumably not all. Many instead appear to have taken it upon themselves to found communities in the new locales in which they found themselves (I say "new," but we can hardly rule out that in many cases these might well have been Diaspora Jews resident in Jerusalem who returned to their home countries and towns).

This all leads me to venture the following narrative. During Jesus's lifetime his inner circle was funded by a common purse which was also used to aid the poor. Following his death in April of 30 (less probably, 33) and an initial flush of demographic expansion his followers sought to maintain this common purse and the aid that it provided. This was not without difficulty. They pursued what was in fact probably not a viable model in the long-term: the liquidation of capital resources is a tenuous means by which to fund any enterprise. There were internal tensions: people holding back funds, people feeling that they were not receiving their fair share. The configuration was inherently fragile, and thus when an external blow came in the form of persecution it simply collapsed. This is perhaps part of the reason why by the mid-50s there were already two collections for the believers in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 11:29-30, Romans 15:25-31; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9): their social safety net, always precarious, never recovered. (Is this part of why Paul was so determined to aid the poor in Jerusalem? Perhaps, cognizant of his own role in disrupting that social safety net, he felt a particular obligation to assist them in their need. There's no positive evidence to suggest that this was the case, but if indeed Paul both destroyed the Jerusalem community's initial social safety net and then was instrumental in establishing for them a new one via the collections then the coincidence is tantalizing).

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Attributions of the Gospels

There recently has been some discussion on the biblioblogosphere about whether the traditional attributions to the canonical gospels were original or secondary (henceforth, for sake of brevity, "gospels" unqualified will refer to the canonical gospels). I.e. did the "autographs," a textual critical term used to refer to what initially issued from the author, contain these attributions (thus making them original), or were they added later (and thus making them secondary)? Here is my contribution, for what it is worth.

The first thing to do is clearly define the question. I don't know if "Are the traditional attributions original to their respective gospels?" is quite the best question. My suspicion is that a better question would be something like "When did the attributions become associated with their respective gospels?" The first step is to see if we can't find termini post and ante quem for when this occurred. The terminus post quem would appear to be the initial composition of the gospels (and is inclusive of that composition). We probably cannot get more precise than that, as my understanding is that there is no known textual example of any canonical gospel circulating absent the traditional attributions (again, I emphasize that such a judgment lies outside of my primary area of specialization, so if I am mistaken then I would ask those who know more about such matters to kindly offer correction). That means that the attributions could conceivably have become associated with their respective gospels sometime between the initial composition of the gospels and the first clear evidence for these attributions in the extant data, which will provide the terminus ante quem (time before which).

We seem to have what we might call a "hard" and a "soft" terminus ante quem for the association of the traditional attributions with the gospels. The hard terminus is provided by the references to the four gospels that date from the late 2nd-century, perhaps most notably in the work of Irenaeus. A soft terminus would pertain specifically to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, and date to the early 2nd-century. I call this a "soft" terminus ante quem, because the references come from Papias, and it is debated whether he is referring to our Gospels of Mark and Matthew here. My own judgment is that he almost certainly is, and his writings do suggest at the very least that by the early 2nd-century Christians were interested in learning about the origins of their written gospel tradition and more specifically that the figures of Mark and Matthew were closely associated with the production of written Jesus tradition. Given the above, we should conclude that the traditional attributions were associated with their respective gospels sometime between their composition and the late 2nd-century, with the Papian data perhaps militating against efforts to date the association of Mark and Matthew with their respective gospels later than the early 2nd-century.

Here we need to attend to an intentional word-choice in the formulation of the initial question. I did not ask "When did the attributions become attached to their respective gospels?" but rather "When did the attributions become associated with their respective gospels?" It is entirely conceivable that the texts initially circulated without any sort of written attribution. But it wouldn't follow that the early Christians weren't passing on oral reports about the origins of the texts. It's hardly inconceivable that if I'm a first-century Christian and I'm handed a copy of a text purporting to describe Jesus's life at length that I would ask "Who wrote this?", to which the answer might be, for instance "Mark." The Papian evidence suggests that such questions were being asked, the better part of a century before the hard terminus ante quem provided by figures such as Irenaeus, and one suspects that it can't be entirely a coincidence that the two names that he provides happen to be among the four names associated with the canonical gospels. Negatively, if one thinks that the attributions became associated with the gospels some considerable time later then one has to give an account for how the relatively late attributions became standardized so fast, with very little evidence of disputes about the attribution, and I'm not sure how well the extant data will allow us to give such an account. As such, given the state of the data, there's no reason to think that such a chain of tradition couldn't have started as early as the initial circulation of the gospels, some reason to think that it did, and good reason to think that it started several decades before the late terminus ante quem. Overall, I am inclined to think that the attributions likely became associated with their respective gospels relatively early, perhaps even from their initial circulation.

Note that I'm not here asking whether any given gospel was written by the figure to whom it is attributed, although, as I am always quick to point out, I do not think that the data is such that we can rule out such a hypothesis in the case of any of the four gospels. Certainly, if one is inclined, as I am, to think that the attributions became associated with these gospels relatively early, and if one is equally inclined, as I am, to think that the gospels were probably written somewhat earlier than the consensus view holds, then the case for the traditional authorship is probably strengthened. But even the consensus dates of the gospels, which situates the gospels between c. 70 and 90 C.E., cannot rule out the possibility that any or all of the traditional authors were stay alive and active, and the "late-association" hypothesis cannot necessarily rule out the possibility that the association, although late, was nonetheless correct. Still, again, that's not my question here. My question is how we might best think about when they became associated with the gospels, and my inclination is towards a fairly early moment in their circulation.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Was Luke Greek?

Brian LePort recently wrote about whether we can be confident that the author of Luke's Gospel was Greek. I made a couple comments about Brian's post on James McGrath's FB wall which I thought I'd share here.

Before I do, let me clarify my interest. I have little direct interest in the question of the author's ethnicity. Rather, my interest is 1) the question of how we might go about addressing such a matter and 2) the indirect relationship between the authorship and the date of any given NT book. The former relates to my work in my forthcoming volume from T&T Clark, The Quest for the Historical Jesus after the Demise of Authenticity: Toward a Critical Realist Philosophy of History in Jesus Studies, the latter relates to my decade-old obsession with the dates of the NT books, which seems to finally be coming together in a publishable form. With those interests defined, let me proceed to copy out what I wrote on James's wall, with some modifications for this context.

It strikes me that either Luke is what we might call a "Judaizing Gentile" or he's a "Hellenizing Jew." (And yes, both terms admit a possibility of nuance, but we're working heuristically here so we can allow a degree of fuzziness). Either he's a non-Jewish person (quite possibly but not certainly Greek) who is immersed in Jewish literature, or he's a Jewish person who is immersed in Hellenistic literature. Philo and perhaps to a lesser extent Josephus would probably both be in the latter category, but not the former. The artifacts (texts included) produced by the Judaizing Gentile are probably going to look much like those produced by the Hellenizing Jew, making differentiation between them difficult, but in terms of the historical dynamics at work they're going to be the result of nearly opposite movements (which happen to converge at very close if not quite identical points). Given the difficulties involved in categorizing texts as the product of an author of one category versus an author from the other I'm not sure if internal or comparative evidence is going to suffice. As such we might well have to advert to what data we have about the author from external material, and when it comes to Luke that is not nothing.

The best data is going to be that which is as contemporaneous to Luke's Gospel as possible. That end, let us examine first-century and early-second century Christian materials to see what they say about a figure named “Luke.” Interestingly, we find that there is such a figure referenced in the Pauline corpus (cf. Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11; Phlm. 24; possibly Rom. 16:21, but here we have Λούκιος rather that Λουκᾶς, and I’d guess that these are not intended to be the same figure). There are a host of clues in Colossians, 2 Timothy, and Philemon that lead me to think that these are all referring to the same figure, most notably the triangular relationship that is drawn between Paul, Luke, and certain other figures. Even granted that the authorship of Colossians and 2 Timothy are disputed the way in which early recipients of the Pauline tradition understood this figure “Luke” nonetheless stands as data for our purposes. And it is Col. 4:14 that is most interesting, because on the basis of 4:11 we have good reason to think that either Paul knew his companion Luke to be a Gentile or early Pauline interpreters knew him to be a Gentile. What we seem to be left with then is a situation in which there is only one figure known in first (or at latest, early-second) as “Luke,” and this figure is identified in the data as not-Jewish.

Now, let’s think through the possibilities that result from this judgment. If we judge that it was written by the Luke mentioned in the Pauline corpus (which I don’t think the data allows us to exclude) then we could be fairly certain that the author was not-Jewish. If we judge that it was attributed pseudonymously to this Luke, either when it was first written or secondarily, then we could be fairly certain that it was attributed to someone who was remembered as being not-Jewish, and thus his not-Jewishness quite reasonably can be construed as part of the fiction involved in the attribution. Both possibilities would seem to militate towards a not-Jewish authorship, at least more so than against. If we judge that the attribution has nothing to do with the one first-century Christian named “Luke” who was significant enough to appear in our data then we had best have strong arguments, as we are now going to run up against some significant issues of parsimony. As such, given the first-century data, it seems that a Gentile with a fairly high degree of immersion in Jewish literature remains the best judgment on the matter.

Thus far what I wrote previously. I would add the following. In response to the above it was suggested that this argument is speculative. I suspect that my interlocutor meant "hypothetical," to which I would simply respond "Yes," but I will take the word as it stands. And against that word I would suggest that the argument is not speculative but rather analytical. It makes a series of judgments on questions that arise as we seek to answer the initial question "Was Luke Jewish or Greek?" These judgments are given warrant by appeal to data. Evaluative criteria such as parsimony and (unspoken but implicit throughout) explanatory scope are invoked. The final judgment might be mistaken, but that would be not because it is speculative but rather because either error is made in the analysis or currently unavailable data obviates the analysis.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Scripture and Language

In his 2014 volume The Original Bishops, Alistair Stewart writes that when the early Christians set about finding language to describe their institutional life "[s]imilar societal institutions, such as synagogues and other associations, would be the primary source of language, whereas scriptural usage and familiarity would be a secondary filter only" (p. 134). As stated, it seems to be axiomatic, and that leads me to query whether the axiom is true. I'm not entirely persuaded.

I think that we need to remember the degree to which the first generation or two of Christians were convinced that scriptural prophecy was being fulfilled in their midst. They were, I think, quite convinced that the church in Jerusalem was fulfilling certain prophecies about the eschatological Zion. They seem to have understood the Diasporic missions in terms of prophecies about Zion constituting a light to the nation. Given such a situation I don't think it at all improbable that early Christian institutional language would be guided more by scripture than by "similar societal institutions." Indeed, I'm not certain whether in their minds there were any similar societal institutions. Related to this we must remain cognizance of the fallacy from analogy: just because Christians use the same terms as other groups does not mean that they used them in the same way. They might have, they might not. "Occupy" meant something quite different to the protesters who gathered in Zucotti Park in 2011 than it does to military planners in the Pentagon.

Now, let me be clear: I am not making any statement regarding whence Christians derived terms such as episkopos, presbyteros, or diakonos. I am rather questioning the axiom Stewart seems to articulate on p. 134 of his book. My fear is that Stewart represents here what the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard described as "If I were a horse" thinking. "If I were a horse I would like to lie in the sun." "If I were a Pacific islander I would behave thus and so." "If I were an early Christian I would use language in this way or that." Such approaches characterized ethnography and ethnology prior to the emergence of modern fieldwork in the 1910s, which had the incredible idea that if one wants to know how Pacific islander behaved one should spend some time with south Pacific islanders, preferably on their Pacific islands. That's what Malinowski did (somewhat by accident: he was stranded in the region because of shipping disruptions during the First World War), thus becoming the father of modern anthropology and ethnography more generally. That, ideally, is what historians do, mutatis mutandis. Rather than decide a priori that early Christians would prefer language drawn from extant societal institutions rather than from scripture the historian reads early Christian writings and gets a sense of how they are using language. She or he reads the material from the broader literary and inscriptional environment in which the early Christians lived. Then, she or he formulates an a posteriori hypothesis on the matter.

Let me also be clear: despite the above misgiving, Stewart's work is a must-read for anyone interested in early Christian social history.