The Real Origins of Christianity

I’m moved to write this short piece by two disconnected and discordant events: one an advertisement, the other a death.

First the ad.  I occasionally receive promotional stuff from the Center for Inquiry in Buffalo, New York.  The Center was founded by Paul Kurtz, a long-term friend of mine, and until 2009 the chair of the CFI and its affiliate organizations. Recently I received news of a short course entitled  ”The Real Origins of Christianity,” ($60, including t-shirt) to be taught by a librarian who blogs and self-publishes on New Testament studies, Richard Carrier, and an employee of CFI who specializes in American philosophy, John Shook. Apparently while walking through the markets of East Jerusalem, someone sold them a magic key.

I worked for a short time within the Center and for a longer time alongside it as Chair of its Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER).

While it lasted–for almost thirty years–CSER was a successful entrepot between professional, critical investigations into religion and biblical history and a general public that had understandably come to believe that religion was either what people did when the golf course was soggy (the benign version) or a variety of obnoxious television godhawkers in bad fitting suits, begging for money to pay their bills (the toxic version).

CSER sponsored a wide variety of conferences in its day, ranging from a groundbreaking one at the University of Michigan in 1984 (Jesus in History and Myth) which can fairly be said to have spurred a new generation of interest in the non-confessional study of the historical Jesus-question, to a 2004 conference at Cornell (Just War and Jihad), focusing on the sources of violence in Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  Its last academic conference was at the University of California at Davis in 2007, an investigation into the methods used by biblical and koranic scholars in analysing the origins of their sacred writings and traditions.

During its heyday, CSER attracted some very significant voices: Morton Smith of Columbia, the controversial “discoverer” of the Secret Gospel of Mark; Van Harvey of  Stanford, America’s leading historian of religion; David Noel Freedman of UC San Diego, editor of the Anchor Bible; James Robinson of Claremont, the compiler of the first English translation of the Gnostic gospels.. In addition to its stalwarts and recidivist contributors, it attracted a wide variety of younger scholars and international supporters as well and was growing rapidly in outreach and prestige when CFI, without Kurtz at the helm, decided to suspend it as a cost-cutting measure.

At its last significant meeting in Davis, California,  the aged and the young sages had multiple chances to interact–sometimes, as in a particularly lively and dramatic exchange between James Robinson and Arthur Droge of Toronto–to risk correction and possible embarrassment. Nothing is more energizing than watching lions defend their legacies while challengers try to gain ground.  It is a spectacle that few of the “laity” ever get to witness: scholarship in action.  Smart people correcting each other, egos exposed to the elements.


Morton Smith

And let me stop at that word.  Scholarship is fundamentally about correction, not the display of extreme or private theories in public.  Since the time of the ancient Greeks, it has been a “dialectic”– ideas getting tangled up with other ideas.  It is surgery, not sculpture, scalpels not chisels.  It requires knowing what to throw away and what to replace it with, and whether the new is any better than the old.  The word publication defines its purpose in its root: work designed for public scrutiny.

Without dialectic, which operates on the foundation of suspicion and skepticism, just as in the sciences, religious studies and biblical scholarship would still be a mere translation of texts assumed to be inviolable. Much of an older generation of biblical scholarship was just that: translation (often good translation), theological paraphrase, and noble efforts at establishing dates and points of origin based on (often spurious) reports and traditions.

Yet the danger of evading the dialectic is not just a “conservative” problem.  At another and equally dangerous extreme, private, non-dialectical theories might hold that eccentric views are inviolable because the opinions of experts only exist to be demolished–a kind of textual iconoclasm that thinks it can bypass “traditional” methods of investigation completely, even if it doesn’t fully comprehend them.  To trivialize this view ever so slightly, it is one often held by self-trained amateurs who think the greatest service they can perform for scholarship is to line all existing theories up against a wall and shoot them (and their perpetrators, if still alive) dead. Theoretically, this greatly accelerates the forward march of new opinion.


The New Trend

This is a fancy way of saying that the real origins of Christianity is not the subject for a monologue, certainly not one by amateur dialectic-avoiders. It’s a subject for argument and interpretation.  It is closer to being a dog fight–of a genteel kind–than a dog show.

At the risk of offending amateurs and enthusiasts everywhere, biblical scholarship is not for amateurs and enthusiasts.  Is is arduous and often dull work. It means learning Greek and Coptic and Hebrew and Aramaic not just well but very well, and Latin just for fun.  It means knowing how books were produced in the ancient world, what literary genres were available. –What scribes ate for breakfast that might have spilled onto their paper and what copyists (editors) were thinking that might have caused them to scratch something out.

If you were not taught this in graduate school, then you were not taught properly–or at all.  It is not the  da Vinci Code.  It is not normally fraught with exciting new discoveries or ingenious hoaxes, and when it is–as in the case of the Qumran (Dead Sea) scrolls or Nag Hammadi (Gnostic) documents, the discovery soon turns to the drudgery of translation and piecing cultural puzzles together.  In putting that puzzle together, it helps to have in your head an image of what the picture, in its totality, might plausibly look like.  That is where the drudgery pays off.

It is primarily a story of watching extravagant claims about “startling new information” fade into the reality of prosaic results.  The (shameful) fifty years that elapsed between the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and their complete publication was a bitter period for scholars who were interested in “putting it out there”; the thirty years that intervened between the discovery and translation of a version of the Nag Hammadi material was a little better.  True, even reputable scholars have made preposterous claims before, during, and since the process of translation and editing.

But if your interest in New Testament studies (or if any of the conspiracy- or fabrication- theories you now hold) is based on any of this work, my earnest advice to you is: Don’t quit your day job. If you think that such work is best fueled by two-hour debates on the resurrection of Jesus with fundamentalist know-nothings rather than subjecting your ideas to peer review and criticism, think again about pursuing it as a vocation. (Twenty eight years after the publication of my “controversial” study of Marcion and the New Testament, I am still patiently defending my suppositions).


P69: Marcion’s?

Having learned and taught the subject for more than thirty years, I can honestly say, I have no idea how Christianity began.  Having also read, however, most of the theories put forward by mythtics and Jesus-skeptics, I can also say, in a friendly kind of way: you’re not close to an answer.

Which brings me to the death.  I learned yesterday of the death of C. K. Barrett, who is described in his obituary, written as it happens by one of my PhD examiners, this way:

“Charles Kingsley Barrett, who has died aged 94, stood alongside CH Dodd as the greatest British New Testament scholar of the 20th century. Barrett regarded commentary on the texts as the primary task of the biblical scholar, and his meticulous commentaries have provided solid foundations for students and clergy for more than 50 years. He was a Methodist minister for nearly 70 years and, during his time as lecturer and professor of divinity at Durham University (1945-82), and in retirement there, he preached most Sundays in the city or a nearby village. His opposition to the scheme for Anglican-Methodist reunion in the 1960s brought him into contact with a wider public as a church leader, as well as a renowned teacher.”

Barrett was ancient, or considered so, even when I was a graduate student, and what Robert Morgan calls “meticulous” in his article many of us would have called unacceptably conservative.  In his time, he was considered anti-Semitic by some and stubbornly refused to revise some of his commentaries that seemed to duplicate some of the worst instincts of German theologians and scholars.

Yet in other ways, he was fair-minded and most of us had devised ways to read around his incipient Calvinism for the jewels of insight that were embedded in books like The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (1956) and The Gospel of John and Judaism (published in German in 1970, and English in 1975).  As Morgan notes, “The learned and judicious historian of Christian origins did not in his writing and lecturing allow more than glimpses of the fire in his belly.”

A year after the appearance of Marcion, and eager to have his opinion, he wrote– in response to me–a single cordial sentence:  ”Very experimental, very tentative of course.  We shall have to see.”  Because his judgment mattered, it was a more important comment than “Good job” or “I might disagree with your premise if only I could find it.”  I was especially hopeful for Barrett’s verdict because of a traditional opinion that Marcion, who, I had come to believe, is actually the author of the first written gospel, was anti-Jewish, a view I tried hard to disassemble.

Yet there it is: “Charles Kingsley Barrett, who has died aged 94, stood alongside CH Dodd as the greatest British New Testament scholar of the 20th century…” A man who did not know the Real Origins of Christianity though he knew practically everything about it.  And worse, a man with no listing in Wikipedia.

9 thoughts on “The Real Origins of Christianity

  1. Carrier (as you know) isn’t an amateur. He is trained Classicist, which is probably the one of the best types of training needed to tackle this subject. Why the heck Shook is involved I have no idea… The idea that this students get credit for this course is unsettling.

    In trying to counter Christian apologetics, so many atheists don’t seem to realize they are depending on scholarship that is the equivalent of what they want to attack- shoddy, overreaching amateur nonsense. Most wouldn’t pass as a freshman essay let alone become a study of importance for historians like those of your late PhD examiner. If you have a chance buy David Fitzgerald’s “Nailed”. It will (depending of how you take the abuse of historical analysis or method) have you either laughing out loud or pounding the table in frustration Yet it is vaulted merely because it reaches a conclusion that so many in the atheist community want to agree with. Its this blind ignorance to soberly assess evidence that really puts me off so much of what is falsely called freethinking movement. They have the character of that which they seek to attack- a position in search of arguments.

    • I am afraid I cannot agree that being a classicist is “the best preparation” for this sort of thing, though ideally it should help. Michael Grant who died in 2004 was a professor of Classics at Cambridge, a tireless author and interpreter of the ancient world writing on everything from myth to the Jews and numismatics. His knowledge was truly massive in the field and he trained a whole generation of ancient historians, though obviously not in bibical studies. In 1977 however he wrote a book called Jesus: An Historian’s View of the Gospels, in which he wanted to show that his insights and training would shed new light on the New Testament. The book was an embarrassing failure, not least because he uncritically and without looking at two hundred years of biblical scholarship, applied what he knew about classical texts to biblical ones and came up with, among many startling announcements, the story of Jesus tracing a letter on the ground with his finger “as though he heard them not”, in John 8.6, as “the very kind of detail that permits an historian to say a text is irrefragably true.” It does have the air of authenticity, like any good dramatic set piece. The only difficulty is, the author is thinking of the stubborn disbelief of the Jews when Moses presented them the letters of the law “written by the finger of God” (Exodus 31.18; Deut. 9.10). There is probably not a less historical tidbit in the whole of the Fourth Gospel and is the very kind of thing a classicist is predisposed to miss because of the way we’re trained to sift sources. It is also true that Grant was a soft believer, just a Carrier is a hardcore atheist. Methodology seems to fall by the wayside in either case. But take my word for it, there is nothing being taught in classics departments (and I’ve chaired and taught in a few!) that would make anyone especially adept in the biblical field, and indeed scholarly apartheid guarantees the opposite result for the most part.

  2. Joe, you have evidenced your apprecation of your fellow scholars Schubert Ogden, James Robinson and Hans Dieter Betz as being credible critical Historical NT scholars.
    They each share the conviction that they understand The Real Origins Of Christianity.
    They each share the conviction that none of the writings of the NT is apostolic witness, thus not reliable sources for reconsruction.
    They each identify the Scriptural source which can be taken to be our most certain apostolic witness to the HJ, presenting an entirely different image of Jesus from that pictured by the writings of the NT.

    I again dare to repeat the claim that the reconstructin contained in the first 13 comments to your essay The Importance of the Historical Jesus, based largely on extracts from works of these three, constitutes a viable picture of The Real Origins of Christianity

  3. Is there more than one librarian who blogs and self-publishes on New Testament studies or is someone actually going to have Steph’s favorite armchair historian teach Christian origins? Should be great fun for all attendees who still possess the faculty of reason.

    • Mike:

      Here lies the body of this world,
      Whose soul alas to hell is hurled.
      This golden youth long since was past,
      Its silver manhood went as fast,
      An iron age drew on at last;
      ‘Tis vain its character to tell,
      The several fates which it befell,
      What year it died, when ’twill arise,
      We only know that here it lies.

      Henry David Thoreau: Epitaph on the World

    • Thee magic key is the ability to read the NT in its historical context to identify the realapostolic witness to the HJ. First to get beyond the very same bias which dominates the Fundamentalist: the conviction that the writings of the NT authors is the sole source of Scriptural knowledge about the HJ. Of course the secular skeptic reaches an entirely differet conclusion from this poin.
      The key is the ability to come to recognize the historical fact that we hae an apostolic Scriptural Witness source.

  4. After re-reading, it seems from your comments that Barrett was a man who saw far greater importance in his work than in having his name in lights or on Wikepedia. Maybe it didn’t matter to him if his name was ever emblazoned on the door of a library or lecture hall.

    Nonetheless, thank you for bringing his name to our attention.

  5. Hi Professor Hoffman, I’ve read several of the books you wrote/edited for Prometheus Books. Wonderful reading. I also took the course that Carrier is teaching on Christianity’s Origins (it is being offered a second time due to high demand). It’s not all Carrier’s writing, Ehrman and Ludemann’s views were also discussed. It’s an “apocalyptic Jesus” point of view that is emphasized and defended.

    On the views of different scholars I would love to see someone edit a book featuring the religious/intellectual journeys of major scholars, including those who became Christians, and those whose Christianity grew more liberal and those who left it entirely — as their knowledge of the NT increased throughout their scholarly careers. I imagine that most people drawn to study the Bible probably came from some sort of religious background to begin with. But I also imagine that studying the Bible intensely in college tends to raise questions that lead to more moderate views if not major questions over time. Even N.T. Wright, and his neo-Evangelical non-inerrantist approach to the NT and Christianity apparently went through some trials in which he had to rethink what he believed. Though I doubt we’ll be able to squeeze more out of him concerning such upheavels other than the paragraph below:

    WRIGHT ON THE “HUGE UPHEAVELS” HE’S EXPERIENCED
    “The Jesus I have discovered through historical research is . . . not the Jesus I expected or wanted to find when I began this work nearly twenty years ago. Studying Jesus has been the occasion for huge upheavals in my personal life, my spirituality, my theology, and my psyche. . . . Second, the Jesus I have discovered is clearly of enormous relevance to the contemporary world and Church. I know that others with very different Jesuses would say this as well, so you may find the point irrelevant. . . . Let me put it like this. After fifteen years of serious historical Jesus study, I still say the creed ex animo; but I now mean something very different by it, not least by the word ‘god’ itself.”

    SOURCE: N. Thomas Wright, “Jesus and the Identity of God” (Originally published in Ex Auditu 1998, 14, 42–56.)

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