Reading Christianity Interregnum Number 1: Yup, I was wrong

10 Feb

This isn’t much of an admission as I’m frequently wrong. However in this case I have achieved two different levels of wrongness. One is that what I knew ain’t so. I’m OK with this. I even made a subtle reference to this when I started a concerted effort to learn more about early Christianity. I’m accustomed to wrongness when it comes to history. If I knew everything that would take the fun out of it. I’ll get to that part of the post in a minute.

From a blogging perspective I’ve also been wrong. In my opening Apocrypha post on The Acts of Peter I included several qualifiers. However I left out an essential one. In order to truly study Apocrypha, they should first be examined separate from other evidence. I’ve mentioned before that something I read in Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 had a large influence on me. This particular passage emphasized the need for each piece of historical evidence to be examined on its own terms, without consideration of or being influenced by other evidence. Only then should you begin to compare and contrast it with other evidence.

I knew this when I started my Acts of Peter post but neglected to mention it. From a historical methodology perspective, how I made, and will continue to make, my Apocrypha posts is wrong. In each of those posts I deliberately compared and contrasted the apocryphal accounts with canonical texts as well as what came to be viewed as Orthodox Christian belief. I’m not going to apologize for this. One of the goals of blogging is to make posts interesting and one way to do this is to relate what I post about to something the reader will be familiar with. These posts are targeted for those of you who have not extensively read up on Apocrypha to try to help you learn a bit about them and, possibly, read up on a few yourself. Most of you will be familiar with the New Testament canon and Orthodox Christianity to some extent. I also enjoy relating things I learn which surprise me and the content of some of the Apocrypha does this, quite often when I think of how different what they say is from Orthodoxy (or what would become Orthodoxy). I have and will continue to compare and contrast Apocrypha with Orthodoxy and Canonical Scripture; I think it makes the posts more interesting. However I should have included this qualifier in my initial post.

Now to return to my first, and less objectionable, level of wrongness. One of the reasons I wrote that massive Early Christianity Reading post was so I could recall what I thought when I started this and hold myself accountable for areas where what I believed initially was incorrect. In this case, I’m going to focus on this statement from that post:

Prior to 300 the Church, starting out as an underground sect of a minority religion, was a collection of fairly loosely organized, related groups geographically located primarily in urban clusters throughout the Empire. While most of these clusters did communicate with one another, the lack of any sort of rigid social structure and hierarchy meant that Christian worship looked very different from one place to another, a situation which would cause a great deal of conflict later.

This is either wrong, or woefully incomplete.

The implication from this statement is that of a common, shared beginning for Christianity. From an inspirational perspective this is very broadly true. Any group which might be considered Christian – believing in a divine or divinely-inspired Jesus – had as its origins the life of Jesus. Or what they believed about the life of Jesus. The problem is that in a fragmented society 2000 years ago, the various beliefs about the life of Jesus and what it meant were so diverse as to be virtually unrelated. To illustrates this, in one belief system Jesus is God who suffered and died for the sins of mankind while in another Christ is a divine spirit who never physically existed on Earth and in fact is seen disembodied and laughing during the crucifixion. And it’s become apparent to me that these non-Orthodox belief systems did not necessarily develop as offshoots of what would become mainstream Christianity (the Pauline-Clement-Ignatius-Polycarp-Irenaeus-Origen tradition) but originated on their own based on very different stories of, and/or understanding of what those stories meant, regarding Jesus’ life. These were often parallel, unrelated developments. We’re not left with a single trunk of a tree with multiple branches but with several trees, most of which later died (and many of these trees developed their own branches which in some cases later merged with the mainstream tree).

The situation from my initial post did exist. Groups which started out in the “proto-Orthodox” camp may have developed different belief systems partly due to geographic distance and a lack of organizational coherence. But it’s far from the whole, much more complex, story. Various groups, some of which I intend to talk about in future posts, appear to have originated independent of mainstream (or what would become mainstream) influence. Some of these derived their inspiration, or at least part of it, from non-canonical texts which may have been written as early as the Gospel accounts or even Paul’s letters. Other groups based their belief systems on different interpretations of Canonical texts. Some used a combination of the two. Then you have other factors such as existing belief systems, outside influences, contemporary local situations that can often only be hypothesized – I could go on. The origin of Early Christian thought is a complex and diverse topic. And very interesting. There’s a reason I’m spending far more time on this than I originally thought I would.

I’ve also allowed myself to forget one additional caution from my Influential Books Post. Chris Wickham in Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 talks about the need to examine developments on a local geographic basis rather than making broad statements such as I did above. This gets very difficult as the surviving evidence for how various geographic areas developed Christian thought, at least through the third century, isn’t very good. However research in Early Christianity has started to increasingly focus on epigraphic evidence (inscriptions). These survive more frequently than texts and were less susceptible to later redactions, burning (didn’t happen as often as some folks think but it did happen), or simply a failure to copy them so that they survived.

This is good as I’ve learned something important – essential really – about Early Christianity. I’ll expand on these origins as I make additional posts but I wanted to throw in this addition to my initial set of qualifiers and it serves as a nice opportunity to talk about something I’ve learned.

Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). ISBN: 9-780521-435437.

Wickham, Chris, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 9-780199-212965.


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3 responses to “Reading Christianity Interregnum Number 1: Yup, I was wrong

  1. Nathaniel M. Campbell

    February 11, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Do you think there’s any ex post facto irony in your use of the term “Interregnum” in this post’s title, given the Pope’s announcement today of his resignation and thus the imminent coming of an Interregnum in March?

  2. Curt Emanuel

    February 11, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    Man, I hadn’t even thought of that. I debated using Interregnum in the title as my use is pretty far down on the list of definitions but I think it fits, loosely at least.

    I’m trying to figure out whether to post something here on Benedict’s resignation. If I do I need to link it to the evolution of the Papacy and there are SO many people better suited for this than I.

    Then again, developing some sort of timeline as a set of study notes for myself might be useful and if I’m going to do that I may as well post it.


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