Friday, November 2, 2012

RBB12: Heikki Räisänen's The Rise of Christian Beliefs: The Thought World of Early Christians

In my previous discussion of Helmet Koester I yearned for a new language that would break free of the old canon-centered paradigm for good. Heikki Räisänen's The Rise of Christian Beliefs: The Thought World of Early Christians (Fortress Press, 2010) does not provide that new language, but it is nevertheless an impressive final milestone of the old language. What we have here is the end result of a specific program, first presented in Räisänen's Beyond New Testament Theology (1990), which dictates that early Christianity should be studied from a conscious "history-of-religions point of view" (xvii) that is descriptive rather than confessional, an enterprise that approaches early Christian ideas "as human constructs" and that utilizes "methods similar to those that it would apply to any other texts"; in short, an exercise of "fair play". (3)

Several consequences follow from these premises. Canonical status should play no role whatsoever in the study of early Christianity, and the Christians with different opinions compared to, say, Paul should nevertheless be taken "just as seriously as Christians as the apostle himself". (4) Furthermore, there is no reason to shy away from early Christian diversity which, in Räisänen's estimation, is in any case "so obvious that unity can be sought only on a rather abstract level" (6), citing Frank Matera for further emphasis that "the unity of the New Testament is a presupposition of faith" (p. 423 in Matera's 2007 New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity).

Before delving further into the framework of this scholarship, let me present some brief summaries of the main points of Räisänen, chapter by chapter:
What did early Christians believe about the end times? A great number of things. Following the Jewish precedents of two distinct ideals ("collective earthly expectation" and "individual transcendent expectation"; 86), early Christians possessed three basic types of expectation: a millenarian expectation that would take place on the earth (the historical Jesus and Irenaeus), a transitional (ambiguous) expectation that gives some space for the earthly expectation but focuses on the heavenly world that is invisible (Paul, the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke), and a spiritual expectation (those Christians with whom Paul argued in 1 Cor 15, the author of the Gospel of John, and Ignatius as well as Clement of Alexandria). From maranatha (Paul, the author of the Didache) we move towards Tertullian and the praying for the delay of parousia (Apol. 39.2). (pp. 79-113)

What did early Christians believe about the aftermath of individual's death? A great number of things. Following the variety of Jewish and Greco-Roman precedents of post mortem rewards and punishments, early Christians could envisage the resurrection of only the righteous and, consequently, annihilation of the unworthy (Paul, the author of the Didache), or a general resurrection that judged individuals either to heaven or hell (the author of the Gospel of Matthew, Justin Martyr), though some like Clement of Alexandria thought the punishment was temporary only. Another related idea, the resurrection of the flesh, went hand in hand with earthly expectations (so Justin, Tertullian, and Irenaeus), but even if the authors of the Gospels of Luke and John emphatized the bodily resurrection of Jesus, they nevertheless narrated scenes in which the disciples could not recognize the risen Jesus, implying that his resurrected body was different (and thus also Paul's "spiritual body" is not composed of "flesh and blood"). This trajectory was further developed towards immortality of the soul (Clement of Rome, the author of the Gospel of Thomas, and the majority of Christians in II CE according to Polycarp in Phil. 7). (pp. 114-133)

What did early Christians believe about the power and function of sin? A great number of things. Following the "relatively optimistic view of the human condition" ("creatureliness") in the Hebrew Bible (135) that differentiated between "the righteous" (who "acknowledge their sins and atone for them") and "the real sinners" (who allow "sins to pile up") (138), early Christians could continue along those lines (the author of the Gospel of Matthew, Hermas) or they could posit "sin as an active power" (144) that holds the whole world "in bondage" (148) simply because it was hard to come up with another grave enough reason for God to have had to deliver Christ to death (Paul). Other Christians saw the situation even more dire: humans are "blinded by ignorance" (150) as the material world was in itself an error that needed to be corrected, for example, by obtaining divine revelation (Valentinus, the authors of the Gospel of Mary and the Hypostasis of the Archons). (pp. 134-153)

What did early Christians believe about the requirements for salvation? A great number of things. Following the Jewish notions of repentance and obedience or divine grace and human effort working together in salvation (what E. P. Sanders has labeled "covenantal nomism"), early Christians could continue along those lines i.e. continue to ascribe importance to deeds (the historical Jesus, the authors of the Synoptic Gospels and the Didache), which implies that Jesus' death is largely viewed as non-salvific. Others did the opposite and viewed Jesus' death as a necessity for salvation through different conceptualizations such as utilizing sacrificial language and the language current in martyr ideology, or speaking of reconciliation, redemption, or even justification (Paul). Yet others were saved by knowledge of various sorts (the author(s) of the Pseudo-Clementines, the authors of the Gospels of John, Thomas, and Philip). Rituals related to salvation included baptism (Paul), chrism (the author of the Gospel of Philip), and redemption (Marcion). (pp. 154-191)

What did early Christians believe about Jesus? A great number of things. Following the Jewish precedents of "exalted humans", "angelic beings", and "personified divine attributes" that were "elevated into positions very close to God" (196), early Christians could picture Jesus as appointed or adopted to his post-Resurrection office (Paul's tradition in Rom 1, the authors of the Gospel of Luke and the Epistle to the Hebrews), and as an "object of devotion" (201) that was distinguished from God by his lordship (so Paul) much like "the cult of personal helpers, such as Heracles or Asclepius, and of foreign savior deities, notably Isis and Serapis" (202). Some Christians were interested in Jesus' death (Paul, the author of the Gospel of Luke), some in his earthly actions as a prophet and a healer/exorcist (the authors of the Synoptic Gospels), and some in his teaching of a special knowledge that saved (Valentinus, the author of the Gospel of Thomas). Those Christians who speculated about Jesus' preexistence (Paul, the author of the Gospel of John) did not ponder about his virginal conception (the authors of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew); Ignatius is the first Christian to combine both notions. As for the degree of Jesus' humanity, Paul and many other Christians really wanted to have it both ways despite the inherent contradiction of the notion of being both "true man" and "true God"a contradiction that the Council of Chalcedon "solved" by its famous non-answer (or non-definition) of "one and the same Christ ... in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably" (226). (pp. 192-227)

What did early Christians believe about the Spirit? A great number of things. Following the variety of Jewish and Greco-Roman precedents of the possibility to become "raptured" by the spirit of God (even Yahweh) or Goddess, some early Christians connected the spirit of God (or the spirit of Jesus) with "extraordinary phenomena" in their community but also with more mundane tasks of teaching, working, and interpreting the Jewish scriptures. (Paul, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, Irenaeus), while others discarded the extraordinary part altogether (the authors of the Pastoral Epistles). Other Christians viewed pneuma as the "divine spark" present in all humans (the authors of the Apocryphon of John and the Gospel of Philip). One peculiar view is presented in the Gospel of John, where the Paraclete is the combination of the holy spirit and the ascended Jesus, while other Christians distinguished between the two (the author of the Acts of the Apostles, John of Patmos). The spirit could be seen as subordinated to Christ (Justin) or Christ could be seen as subordinated to the spirit (Hermas). (pp. 228-246)

What did early Christians believe about their affiliation with Judaism/Israel? A great number of things. Though early Christians were already distinguishable from the Jews "at the social level" during Nero's persecution (247), on an intellectual level some early Christians wanted to preserve their identity as "Jewish" (those Christians with whom Paul argued in Gal 2, the author(s) of the Pseudo-Clementines) while others reconstructed their identity anew, resulting in failed internal logic (Paul) or general ambiguousness regarding the exact relationship between statements gleamed from the Hebrew Bible and their application to the Christ-believers (the authors of the Gospel of Matthew, Luke, and the Didache). Furthermore, others were content to drop the Jewish heritage altogether, a movement towards a non-Jewish identity is already in progress in the Gospel of John, further developed in the Epistle to the Hebrews (which holds that "the Jews never had a valid covenant in the first place"; 276), up to the clear differentiation between "Jews" and "Christians" (Ignatius, Marcion). Early Christian writings retain the language of election of the Hebrew Bible, and in so doing "[t]he actual discontinuity is camouflaged with the use of language suggesting continuity" (281). (pp. 247-282)

What did early Christians believe about other contemporary religious practices of their day? A great number of things. While most early Christians thought it was impossible for a Christian to attend pagan cult practices (Paul, John of Patmos, Valentinus), eating of sacrificial food was either permitted (Valentinus according to Justin, Paul as long as the "strong" are not observed by the "weak") or not (John of Patmos). Since this attitude to other religious activities put early Christians on a "collision course" with the Greco-Roman world at large (291), the infrequent and local persecutions (which also happened to "philosophers who criticized public rites and made missionary propaganda" on behalf of their conviction; 398) led to martyrdom for Christians of all persuasions, "proto-orthodox", "Marcionite", and "Valentinian" (and presumably all the rest). Some were keen on martyrdom (Ignatius), others criticized this zeal (Clement of Alexandria). (pp. 283-300)
As the above suggests, this is a book about early Christian ideas, of how and where they did arise in interaction with the social experience of early Christian communities. The thematic layout of the material is an important decision Räisänen has made, one that helps to highlight the diversity of early Christianity and shows how the diversity framework does not really depend on the existence of any single document (such as the Q Gospel) or the early dating of some others (such as the Gospel of Thomas). The only unity of thought is found on a very abstract level: it might be possible to state that all early Christians thought that "one day evil will be overcome and the righteous will get justice" (315) and that Christ has some role to play in the process, but any attempt to peer into the exact beliefsjust what is the evil and how will it be overcome, and just what is the justice, and just what is the role of Christ and just what is Christ all about, anywayresults in an almost unbelievable diversity. Apart from the main chapters the book provides close to a hundred pages of introductory material for a reader who requests the big picture of early Christianity to be made clear before more technical discussion of their specific ideas, and an all-important chapter on methodology.

Räisänen is aware of the shortcomings of the old terminology: "The term Christian smacks of anachronism but is difficult to avoid". (1) He goes on to redefine it: "It should be understood here in a weak sense: the noun Christian denotes all persons in whose symbolic worlds Jesus of Nazareth held a central place, one way or another". (1-2) One is tempted to question here whether we should substitute "Christ" for "Jesus of Nazareth" as the latter was not necessarily a concern for many early Christians—including Paul—and that "a central place, one way or another" reads rather like a non-definition as any imaginable stance fits under it. (Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms actually notes that this phrase is "usually used when you know something will happen or get done, but you do not know exactly how"; an apt description as we all know that "one way or another" Räisänen will manage to label Paul, Marcion, Polycarp, Valentinus, and Irenaeus "Christian"—because that is what he said he will do—but we will be damned if the exact details of this decision do not remain elusive.)

In practice, Räisänen's program works beautifully in places. Consider the following sentences in his discussion of the "more conservative wing" of early Christianity:
"The Epistle of Jude is another letter written in the name of a brother of Jesus, perhaps toward the end of the first century. It consists of a vicious attack against some other Christians." (66)
In other places the old paradigm comes through. Räisänen notes that "[The Jewish Bible] remained the unquestioned authority for early Christians" (248), but an exception should be made here—of course—for those early Christians like Marcion and Valentinus for whom the Jewish Bible did not remain "the unquestioned authority". "Mainstream Christianity" is curiously summoned as a descriptor for one group of early Christians (75) despite the observation in p. 338 n. 135 that "we actually do not know about the numbers" and cannot really figure out in which instances we should label which early Christian trajectory "mainstream". Furthermore, some early Christ-believers are still referred to as if they were deviating from the norm, in the manner of "Thomasine Christians" and "Gnostic Christians".

To be clear, there is no problem in putting historical phenomena, groups and individuals in their places by labeling them with whatever nametag one chooses. The problem becomes manifest when some of them are construed as the standard ("Christians") and some others are contrasted against that arbitrary standard ("Thomasine Christians", "Gnostic Christians"). Even that would be acceptable (as long as the choice was conscious), if only our clearly explicated leading thought was not to make away with "the canonical point of view" (4), which would succeed rather better if we aimed to reinforce this principle with a careful use of language rather than try to recast the meaning of the old words while still retaining them.

In short, Räisänen's one remaining problem is much like Paul's struggle to maintain continuity between his old faith in the God of Israel and his new faith in the God who had raised Christ from the death. Though one can change the denotative aspect of words practically at will—and that is what scholars usually do at the beginning of their writings—their connotative power remains culturally constructed to a large degree. Alternatives for the old terminology are "cumbersome" to be sure (1), but only so far as the thought world of unfamiliar religious traditions are "foreign" and "repulsive", to take two words Hans-Josef Klauck used to describe certain early Christian ideas, i.e. only so far as their usage begins to feel like "natural" and "given", and the unfamiliar traditions cease to be unfamiliar.

As I wrote previously regarding Koester, "the old vocabulary itself guides the thought processes along the lines of the traditional wisdom". A new framework for understanding early Christianity, including the rise of early Christian beliefs, requires new vocabulary. If one is willing to look past that one deficiency, The Rise of Christian Beliefs is a marvelous book and—to quote James D. G. Dunn's praise (which I definitely share)—"[i]ts sheer mastery of the principal source materials is never less than impressive, and the awareness of and interaction with a wide range of contemporary scholarship is equally impressive" (from Dunn's review in Review of Biblical Literature; http://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleId=7356&CodePage=7356). The fact that the Finnish edition (written at a slightly more popular level) is now part of the equivalent of Biblical Studies 101 at the University of Helsinki is further to be commended.

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