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.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

On Contradictions

Peter Enns recently wrote an intentionally provocative post entitled "There are no contradictions in the bible (yeah, you heard me)." I'm not going to go into his argument. Rather, I am going to use his post as the impetus to write on a matter that seems to me central to Lonerganian thinking, the distinction between what the Lonergan scholar Robert Doran describes as contraries and contradictories. For our purposes, we might define contraries as claims that are distinct yet can be true at the same time, while defining contradictories as claims that are distinct and cannot be true at the same time. If, on the same day, I uttered both the statements "I injured my left leg yesterday" and "I injured my right leg yesterday," I would be uttering two contrary statements. They are not mutually exclusive, because it is possible that I injured both my left leg and my right yesterday. If, on the same day, I uttered both the statements "I injured my left leg yesterday, but not my right" and "I injured my right leg yesterday," then they would be contradictory, as the former would exclude the latter.

I chose that example because the statements are deictic: their meaning depends upon the time at which I uttered them. If, on the same day, I uttered both the statement "I injured my left leg yesterday, but not my right," and "I injured my right leg yesterday," then they would be contradictory; however, if I uttered those statements on different days then they would not be contradictory at all. This observation of deixis opens up the matter of meaning. Take the following two statements: "Elizabeth, queen of England, died in 1602," and "Elizabeth, queen of England, acceded to the throne in 1962." Surely those two statements must contradict each other? But of course they do not, and they do not because "Elizabeth, queen of England," takes a different referent in the first sentence than it does in the second. One refers to Elizabeth I, the other to Elizabeth II: two totally separate women, born almost four centuries apart. As such, the statements are not mutually exclusive. This is to say that, before we can address the matter of whether two statements about past events or situations are contradictories, we actually need to understand what the statements actually are claiming and what they are not.

I've intentionally kept this in the abstract, without directly addressing the biblical text, in order to avoid the unacceptable yet widespread tendency to suppose that there are a special set of rules that pertain only to biblical interpretation. Such special pleading is not limited to defenders of biblical inerrancy or the like, but also to its critics. The militant atheist is often just as prone to see contradictories where there are none as the Christian apologist is to deny on a programmatic basis that the biblical corpus might contain mutually exclusive statements. The question of whether such contradictories occur cannot be decided by theological supposition, but rather by the patient working through of the data. To that end, let us consider a particular case in which what is sometimes pegged as a contradictory is in fact a contrary. The Synoptics tell me that Jesus cleansed the temple at the end of his ministry. John tells me that he did so at the beginning. This is in fact not a contradictory at all. Although the Synoptics do not present Jesus going to Jerusalem earlier than his final week, neither do they state that he did not. It is entirely conceivable that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, once early in his ministry, and once near the end. Indeed, there are today quite competent scholars who would argue precisely this.

Before continuing with this example, let it be noted that the astute reader might have observed something in my earlier discussion of Elizabeth I and II: my statements about their lives are both false. In point of fact Elizabeth I died in 1603, not 1602, and Elizabeth II acceded to the throne in 1952, not 1962. This brings us back to the original definition of contraries, as it pertains for our purposes. If contraries are for our purposes defined as statements that can both be true at the same time, it does not follow that they are both true. In point of fact, while it could be the case that Jesus cleansed the temple both at the beginning and the end of his ministry, it could also be the case that he cleansed the temple only once, or even never. It's also possible that he cleansed the temple, but neither at the beginning or the end of his ministry. Perhaps he cleansed it in the middle. Or, perhaps he cleansed it more than twice. Perhaps he cleansed it every Passover for three years in a row, his own sort of idiosyncratic Passover tradition, and the different gospel traditions each decided to narrate this recurrent practice as a singular event. The recognition of these permutations is important for the historian, as it reminds us that our goal is not to adjudicate which accounts in our sources are true (that is in fact the work of the scissors-and-paste historian, to use Collingwood's term for a sort of historian that is not really a historian at all), but which modern hypotheses about the past are true. And once one moves from judging sources to judging hypotheses, suddenly the fixation upon contradictions within our sources starts to look a bit quixotic.