Sunday, 23 October 2016

History and the "Future"

Often, when one reads about Christian history of the first century, one reads that one should forget what happened in subsequent centuries. These outcomes were unknown to the historical actors, and thus cannot be consulted when seeking to consider their actions. If historical investigation consists only of understanding what the historical actors knew and anticipated, this would be quite legitimate an injunction. No doubt, Jesus and Paul, for instance, had no inkling that three centuries after their deaths hundreds of Christian bishops would gather in Nicea to determine the church's official position on certain aspects of the doctrine of God. Yet, for other sorts of historical investigation, one cannot ignore this outcome. The actions of Jesus and Paul, and Peter and the Jameses and the Johns, were part of a process that did eventuate in this outcome, among others. Nicene theology became dominant, and not Marcionite or Arian or... It is not a foregone conclusion, to be determined by theory rather than empirical investigation, that, for instance, Jesus' activities during his lifetime, stands as an independent variable to this outcome. In fact, given the entangled nature of reality it seems distinctly improbable that this is the case.

This brings us back to the French Annales school of historiography, which especially since its second generation has emphasized that history moves at variable "speeds." There is "event time," of what Jesus and Paul et. al. were doing during their lives. It is measured in years, sometimes months and even days. There is what we might call "doctrinal time," which we tend to measure in centuries, talking about the theology of the first century versus that of the fourth. There is geographical time, measured in tens of thousands up to millions of years, and cosmic time, measure in billions of years. All these are of relevance to history. And when considering all but event time, we are addressing matters more of process than of discrete events. And when considering process, we are not looking at what individual actors knew or anticipated or intended. Rather, we are considering them as objects in a process that produces certain outcomes, and only those outcomes. Lonergan understands this, making a distinction between history and dialectics, but I find that his thinking on this matter is generally best fleshed out by engagement with thinkers from the various disciplines and intellectual traditions that have focused upon discrete aspects of the "dialectical" world (the Lonergan scholar Robert Doran gets a good start on this in Theology and the Dialectics of History). Hence the increasing turn to the Annales school in my thinking.

The future is an undiscovered country, but it is important to remember that much of Paul's future is our past. We have discovered much of what was for Paul still undiscovered. To exclude those discoveries from our database seems an odd operation in willful self-blinding. After all, hindsight is 20/20, so why intentionally operate with less than ideal vision?

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.