Friday, November 30, 2012

RBB12: Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Eerdmans, 2009) is a monumental monograph by Everett Ferguson, one in which the author has “attempted to be as complete as possible on the first three centuries” and “progressively less so on the fourth and fifth centuries (where the sources are more abundant) yet still … full enough for the work to be representatively comprehensive.” (p. xix) In practice, this decision results in almost thousand pages of detailed study of early Christian literature about baptism and, most importantly, a chance for the reader to get familiar with the primary sources and form one's own opinion about the matter. The trajectory Ferguson himself puts forward sees early Christian baptism rooted in its Jewish antecedents (cue in John the Baptist here as a mediator), and as a direct consequence of the historical fact of Jesus' own baptism and even his command to baptize in the Gospel of Matthew 28.19. The parallels between early Christian baptism and pagan washings are deemed less important—though explicated by some early Christians (such as Justin) the reasons for the drawn parallels, according to Ferguson, were foremost apologetical. 

This is the first point of disagreement between my own reading of the sources and Ferguson's. He himself notes that Judaism of I CE “saw considerable influence from Hellenism” (p. 60) and, consequently, I would be less hasty to downplay the interaction between the Greco-Roman washings and emergent Christianity, in contrast with the various purification rites in Judaism. Bearing in mind Simo Parpola's maxim that (paraphrasing) “in the grand scheme of history, all the Mediterranean religious traditions appear as variants of each other”, the fact that most early Christians adopted a water-based rite of initiation is contextualized most effectively when we keep in mind that every other religious tradition of the day had water-based rites of their own. After all, as Ferguson notes, “The washings [in the religious activities of Greeks and Romans] were so common that they were taken for granted and seldom commented on, and where they were mentioned, often little or no detail was given as to how one performed the ablutions” (p. 25). To be sure, there were differences. Most pagan washings were preliminary purifications in nature, and the idea of initiation into a cult by plunging in water is harder to come by: the only likely contenders were the cult of Cotyto in which the worshippers were known as the Baptae, and the Jewish practice of proselyte baptising, though both points are debatable.

Another point of divergence in our readings appears when Ferguson considers that he has found unity in the early Christian thought-world, namely, that baptism refers almost unanimously to the remission of sins and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. As far as I can see, however, this “unity” works only on a rather abstract level i.e. even if some early Christians used these same words (or same conceptual ideas), the use for which they put them varied considerably. For one example, though many employed the idea of forgiveness of sins, some considered that baptism forgave only those sins that were committed before this ritual act (and, like Hermas, allowed only one chance of repentance), while others disagreed. As I see it, the diversity of early Christian thought regarding baptism becomes diminished in Ferguson's treatise because of its format of taking each Christian (writing) on its own under scrutiny, whereas a thematic layout (like Räisänen's) exposes the diversity much more forcefully.

But enough of Ferguson for, as I stated in the beginning, this is a monograph that gives the reader a chance to follow the author's line of thought by its extensive use of primary sources themselves. As such, it is an essential tool for dealing with questions regarding early Christian baptism—and what does baptism has to do with the study of Clement's Letter to Theodore again?

As is now well known, Morton Smith did not initially consider Clement's letter or the story of Jesus and the youth as a baptismal text, but this interpretation was suggested to him by Cyril C. Richardson at the beginning of the 1960s—Richardson himself retracted this notion by the time of Smith's Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (1973). For the most recent debate, nevertheless, a baptismal reading of Clement's Letter to Theodore has been most useful for Peter Jeffery, as it allows him to argue that the letter does not fit in the context of its purported time frame, namely that the “great mysteries” as a reference to Paschal baptism and the liturgical details in the story of Jesus and the young man are anachronistic for II CE (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, 2007). Scott G. Brown has countered these notions by moving the Markan extract to I CE (as part of the Gospel of Mark) and detaching “great mysteries” from baptism by citing Clementine passages where the two are kept separated (“An Essay Review of The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled”, 2007). Subsequent writings from both authors have continued to hammer on along these same lines. In light of Ferguson's treatise it looks useful to me to consider once again these two questions: What does Clement mean by “great mysteries”, and where does the story of Jesus and the young man really belong?

Clement's Letter to Theodore speaks of two Markan Gospels. The first one was composed in Rome for the catechumens, and the second in Alexandria for “those who were being perfected” and who were also “being initiated into the great mysteries”. The core question here seems to be whether we have two levels of catechumens, all of whom are eventually going to be baptised (Jeffery), or catechumens going to be baptised and other, already baptised Christians who are continuing their studies into further esoteric truths regarding God and Christ (Brown). For Brown's favour we can count the fact that Clement distinguishes baptism from “greater mysteries” in a number of places, including Strom. 5.11.70.7ff., though it is conceivable (if not plausible) that in Strom. 5.11.73.2 the words “the mystery of the seal, in which God is really believed” may refer to baptism as a mystery. At the same time it has to be noted that Clement's use of the word catechesis and related words is somewhat ambiguous. On one hand he thinks that the new catechumens (νεοκατηχήτος) are “carnal”, those who are “not yet purified” (Paed. 1.6.36.4), but in another passage the new catechumens are the ones who receive wisdom teaching (Strom. 6.15.120.1). Then again, in Paed. 1.6.36.1 the “carnal” are “recent catechumens” (νεωστὶ κατηχουμένους) i.e. those who have just been baptised. Ferguson suggests that Clement might have used catechesis not as a specific technical term but as as a referral to various stages of instruction on the path to baptism (pp. 315-316). Given the ambiguousness, Brown's depiction of a postbaptismal “purely metaphorical initiation” (p. 14 of the “Essay Review”) is certainly a possibility—examples of early Christians shunning ritual acts with material components are not exactly hard to come by (see, for instance, Irenaeus' description in Adversus Haereses 1.21.2-3).

Another possibility is for Clement to have known an actual ritual for those already baptised, advanced Christians for whom the Mystic Gospel of Mark was meant for. If we step a bit ahead in time, we find from Origen a clear indication that the Alexandrian catechesis in his time (early III CE) had two stages:
Privately they [the Christians] form one class of those who are taking the lead and are receiving admission but have not yet received the symbol [σύμβολον] of complete purification. They form another class of those who according to their ability are presenting themselves with the purpose of wanting nothing other than the things approved by Christians.” (Contra Celsum 3.51; translation by E. Ferguson p. 419 in Baptism in the Early Church)
In his Homilies on Joshua, Origen explicates this distinction further:
When you are reckoned among the number of catechumens and have undertaken to submit to the precepts of the church … you daily devote yourself to hearing the law of God … But if you also have entered the mystic font of baptism and in the presence of the priestly and Levitical order have been instructed by those venerable and magnificent sacraments, which are known to those who are permitted to know those things, then … you will enter the land of promise.” (Homilies on Joshua 4.1; translation by Barbara J. Bruce pp. 52-53 in Origen: Homilies on Joshua)
As Ferguson interprets this passage, “The earlier stage of instruction concentrated on moral matters and simple faith as opposed to idolatry; more advanced instruction had to do with deeper things of doctrine and the sacraments” (p. 420), maintaining further that "as one came nearer the time of baptism, there was revealed the wisdom of divine things, especially the divinity of Christ" (p. 420). There is, however, another intriguing possibility: that Origen knew two distinct rites of initiation, water baptism (for the simple) and baptism of the Holy Spirit (for the spiritual), as Joseph Trigg argued in 1982 (“A Fresh Look at Origen's Understanding of Baptism”, Studia Patristica 17 (1982): 959-965). Even if there were no two rites of baptism for Origen (as he criticises other Christians for doing just that in his Commentary on Ephesians 4.5), the ambiguity in the texts of both Clement and Origen leaves open the possibility that their version of Christianity had distinct options available for those who wanted to continue onwards from their baptism.

What, then, of the themes of death and resurrection in the story of Jesus and the young man? Are those not, as Jeffery has argued, anachronistic baptismal motives for II CE? Since I have not really decided above to what Clement refers to by his “great mysteries”, I will for the argument's sake assume that Jeffery is about right and the story of Jesus and the young man was used in the ritual of baptism (or some kind of “second baptism” for advanced Christians). The challenge of anachronism, however, largely disappears because of two things. First, I find there is a categorical confusion between the story of Jesus and the young man as such and Clement's use of the story. In most cases I prefer the more straight-forward theoretical models, and for reading texts I quite like Richard Rorty's notion that all anybody can ever do with texts is use them. Case in point in early Christianity is Paul, who illustrates in his Epistle to the Romans how someone can interpret a passage as a complete opposite compared to its meaning (Romans 10.8; “meaning”, obviously, refers here to the meaning an average historian would assign to the original passage in the Book of Deuteronomy). The proper question to ask, consequently, is not what the Mystic Gospel of Mark says but what use Clement made of the Mystic Gospel of Mark i.e. in the end every text is capable of depicting only (or up to) what its reader decides to read is as depicting. As Clement's Letter to Theodore breaks off just as Clement was about to explain his take on the story, we do not really know just how tortured Clement's exegesis might have been, provided he even wanted to make this story fit for a baptismal setting (which we, to reiterate, do not know).

Second, even if we still assume for argument's sake that Clement read the story of Jesus and the youth as fit for baptism with all its death and resurrection imagery, how much of a problem does that really pose? Origen, in any case, associated baptism with being buried with Christ in his Commentary on Matthew 15.23, and even more so in his Commentary on Romans 5.8.2-13 (see Ferguson, pp. 410-417, for numerous other examples). Tertuallian notes that the Pasch is the best time for baptism along with the Pentecost (On Baptism 19.1-2), both of which connect Tertullian's baptism with the death and resurrection of Christ (see Ferguson, pp. 325-350, for a more in-depth analysis). Both of these authors are witnesses for III CE practices, but Ferguson raises the old attribution of the so-called Apostolic Tradition to Hippolytus (II CE), and argues on the basis of its similarities with Tertuallian's writings that “the activities described there were rather widespread in the Christian world” (p. 340), and we might interpret certain liturgical hints contained therein as referring to the baptism at the Pasch (Easter) even though the Apostolic Tradition does not give that placement explicitly.
Now, the above might seem like a weak justification, and Jeffery might still be right in saying that no “second-century father” did use the themes of death and resurrection regarding baptism, but a “second-century father” is not a hard-coded limit of II CE Christians. One might be inclined to bring Menander to bear witness here, as according to Irenaeus he taught that in baptism “his disciples obtain the resurrection by being baptized into him, and can die no more, but remain in the possession of immortal youth” (Adversus Haereses 1.23.5). But a less ambiguous example—and Alexandrian, no less—is Theodotus, of whom we know because Clement preserved quotations from him in his Excerpta ex Theodoto. He is a prominent example of a II CE Christian who connected death and resurrection motifs with baptism:
Therefore baptism is called death and an end of the old life when we take leave of the evil principalities, but it is also called life according to Christ, of which he is sole Lord. But the power of the transformation of him who is baptised does not concern the body but the soul, for he who comes up [out of the water] is unchanged. From the moment when he comes up from baptism he is called a servant of God even by the unclean spirits”. (Excerpta ex Theodoto 76.1-77.3)
Later on Clement quotes Theodotus' ideas on regeneration (one of the baptismal themes he shares with Clement):
He whom the Mother generates is led into death and into the world, but he whom Christ regenerates is transferred to life into the Ogdoad. And they die to the world but live to God, that death may be loosed by death and corruption by resurrection.” (Excerpta ex Theodoto 80.1-2)
Similar traditions (in the Valentinian trajectory) continue in the Gospel of Philip as well (as discussed by Ferguson on p. 287). Jeffery has, in fact, commented on these passages in his second reply to Brown's “Essay Review” (http://music.princeton.edu/~jeffery/Review%20of%20Biblical%20Literature-Jeffery%20reply%20to%20Brown.pdf) by noting that they depict “an abstract, astrological victory of life over death ” where they present an “escape from the physical world, not burial and resurrection of the body” (p. 7 n. 27). While that statement is, of course, quite right, it dismisses Theodotus' use of death and resurrection imagery too casually. Theodotus certainly had a different mythological body of beliefs to colour his Christianity compared to Paul, but he still draws from a bunch of early Christian conceptions including Paul's “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” in Rom. 6.3-5 (and there is no reason why Theodotus would not have known Paul, who was a favourite among the so-called Gnostic Christians). Obviously, if Clement were to utilize these same themes the end result would differ from “an abstract astrological victory”, which might not fit into Clement's worldview. But no one expects Theodotus to be of the same mind as Paul and Clement! An analogous case would be the use of the theme of illumination/enlightenment that, for instance, both Justin and the author of the Trimorphic Protennoia make use of even though the end result is, of course, not the same.

In summary, the tentative conclusion I have arrived at this point is that the charges of anachronisms regarding Clement's Letter to Theodore read as a baptismal text are far from indisputable, as the available data is both voluminous and ambiguous. There are too many unknowns. Clement might not have been consistent in his use of mystery language. He might or he might not have read the story of Jesus and the young man as a baptismal text—we do not know since Clement's Letter to Theodore breaks off before his exposition. Furthermore, I do not think we can state categorically that baptism theology of II CE had no use for the themes of death and resurrection as the excerpts from Theodotus illustrate. On the whole, we do not even know much about Alexandrian Christianity in II CE. It is plausible that the scarcity of information is partly explained by the practice of disciplina arcani that could have been in effect in the Alexandrian church in both Clement and Origen's time (for the latter, see Ferguson p. 423).

Friday, November 16, 2012

RBB12: Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice

Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice (Princeton University Press, 2000), edited by Richard Valantasis, is a completely different work than what I originally envisaged. Frankly, when I picked this book from a list of eligible treatises I had composed for this little exercise of RBB12, I thought it was a collection of essays focusing on religions of Late Antiquity. Instead, it is a collection of translated religious texts from Late Antiquity (from III CE onwards). The book holds 44 different texts (or parts of texts) by 36 different scholars. Not that I would have anything to complain about: previously I had read less than half of dozen of them, so most of the time I was simply delighted at the chance for reading about things a little bit later in time than what my PhD work usually entails. For another thing, this is a good place to break off from concentrating on the scholarly framework and deal with primary source material instead. With these thoughts, let me introduce five religious writings from Late Antiquity I found particularly interesting and see how they relate (or not) to Clement of Alexandria and his world of late II CE.

Evagrius Ponticus on Prayer and Anger (pp. 65-81); introduction & translation by Columba Stewart OSB

Initially influenced by Origen, later taught by Macarius the Great (the Egyptian), Evagrius Ponticus is remembered as "a systematizer of the spiritual theology of Origenist Egyptian monasticism" (65-66). He explores monastic life in his works Praktikos, Gnostikos, and Kephalaia Gnostica. For Evagrius (d. 399 CE), anger was the hardest passion to get under control in monastic life, but one who masters it (and all the other passions such as gluttony and pride)—which Evagrius calls apatheia, borrowing the old Stoic terminologycan become gnostikos ("one who knows"). Of the aforementioned works, Praktikos gives the instructions for getting these practicalities down, Gnostikos deals with teaching others once this "knowledge" has been attained, and Kephalaia Gnostica instructs with further "hidden realities" available to the gnostikos.
"All of the virtues prepare the way of the Knower [gnostikos], but above all is lack of anger. For one who has touched knowledge but is readily moved to anger is like someone who pierces the eyes with an iron pin." (Gnostikos 5, p. 71)
"It is shameful for a Knower [gnostikos] to be involved in a dispute, whether as victim or perpetrator. If he is the victim, it means he has not endured; and if he is the perpetrator, it means he has done wrong." (Gnostikos 8, p. 71)
As the Alexandrian tradition taught Evagrius, speaking of "spiritual knowledge" (pneumatikos gnosis) was an approved choice of terminology; from modern perspective it breaks down the categories of orthodox/heretical and mainstream/niche. Or, to put it differently: Was Evagrius a Gnostic? The question is meaningless. Some Christians (including Clement of Alexandria), even in Late Antiquity, could very well continue speaking of gnosis despite the war on knowledge other Christians were waging. Catch phrases such as "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God", spoken by Athanasius (On the Incarnation 54, 3), are naturally interpreted differently by many theologians past and present, but their roots lie in those early Christian ideas that emphasized salvific knowledge in Christ and the transformation of humanity in light of this enlightenmentyet another indication that the clear-cut orthodox/heresy divide remains anachronistic in the face of (early) Christian plurality of thought.

Iamblichus, de Mysteriis, Book I, The de Mysteriis (pp. 489-505); introduction & translation by Peter T. Struck

Here we have a treatise on ritual theory by the Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus (d. c. 325 CE), "the case for a practice of ritual acts as part of a philosophical program that aims for spiritual enlightenment" (489), which instantly reminds me of Clement of Alexandria's own philosophical program (but more on this in Scott Brown's article that is coming out as part of Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery?—a collection of papers from York Christian Apocrypha Symposium last year). Iamblichus supplements the Neoplatonist contemplation of the One with ritual practices he calls "theurgy" because, in his view, intellect alone cannot ascertain unity with the One. Ritual acts that are "inarticulable" and "beyond all thought" (2.11) must accompany the ascetic contemplation for the practitioner to succeed in his endeavour. The ritual theory functions by the principle that binds "everything to everything".
"[T]he whole cosmos together also is divisible and distributes itself about the single and indivisible light of the gods. But the light is one and entirely the same everywhere, and it is indivisibly present to all things able to participate in it ... It binds all existing things in each other and brings them to each other. It distinguishes by equal measures even things dispersed farthest away, and it causes end points to join to first principles; for example, earth to sky. It works out a single continuity and agreement of everything to everything." (1.9, p. 495) 
Further on, Iamblichus fits the ritual acts themselves into this scheme.
"Observing these things, then, the art of rituals also uses the correspondences and invocations appropriate to each division and environment." (1.9, p. 496)
And one final passage:
"For the divine in us, which is both One and intellectual, or if you wish "intelligible," is awakened into activity during prayers, and when it is awakened it strives after what is similar to it in an exceptional manner and links itself to perfection-in-itself." (1.15, p. 500)
The above explains how the ritual affects the divine in oneself to match like-to-like, and using ritual offerings (sacrifice) as an example, Iamblichus notes that "if some near or distant relationship or likeness exists [between the offering and the god it is offered to], even this is sufficient for the connection" (1.15, p. 501).

The Mithras Liturgy and Sepher Ha-Razim (pp. 303-315); introduction & translation by Kimberly B. Stratton

Both of these texts are closely related to the genre of ascension texts found within Jewish apocalypticism and the Hermetic corpus. If Iamblichus provides the theoretical ritual framework for the contemplation of the wholly transcendent One, these texts provide the actual means for obtaining it. The magician in the Mithras Liturgy, by special preparations and special knowledge, ascends towards the god and "[l]ike ancient Christians undergoing initiation through baptism, the magician ... is reborn and receives, as a pledge of his new status, a newly fashioned horoscope." (304) Sepher Ha-Razim combines ancient Judaism and worship of Greek deities such as Helios and Aphrodite, and borrows the journey's end, the vision of Merkavah (throne-chariot of God), from the Jewish Hekhalot mysticism. In Stratton's view, the categories of religion and magic become completely blurred with this type of literature (not that these categories were too distinct anywhere else either: as Stratton notes, in Antiquity "much of what we would today label magic fell under the rubric of legitimate science and medicine. Other areas of religious practice, which we might also today designate as magic, such as divination or questioning an oracle, belonged to the highest, most solemn, and respected aspects of ancient religion, including the Delphic oracle, the Jewish temple, and the Roman auspices"; 303).

One of the distinct characteristics of the Mithras Liturgy is the use of voces mysticae or "special nonsense language" whicheven if at some point in the history of the liturgy the words were comprehensible utterances (in another, real language)have become garbled and even "deliberately cryptic" (307), pieces that help to separate the holy rites from the profane everyday speech. The context for the following passage is the magician being in the middle of heavenly ascent, surrounded by initially hostile forces.
"And you shall see the gods looking intently at you and charging at you. So, immediately put your right finger to your mouth and say: "silence, silence, silence, symbol of the eternal living god! Protect me, silence VEKHTHEIR THANMELOU." Thereupon, whistle a long shrill piping sound, after that smack the lips saying: "PROPROPHEGGEI MORIOS PROPHUR PROPHEGGEI NEMETHIRE ARPSENTEN PITEITMI MEOU ENARTH PHURKEKHO PSURIDARIO TUREI PHILBA" and now you shall see the gods looking at you kindly and no longer charging at you, but instead proceeding in their own order of affairs." (556-569; p. 308)
Did Clement of Alexandria has a specific ritual for the "initiation into the great mysteries" (Theod. II.2)? Recently, there has been a lengthy debate between Scott Brown and Peter Jeffery that touches on this subject. In other quarters, scholars like Bentley Layton have argued that there never were distinct rituals of initiation of chrism or bridegroom chamber, principally known to us from the Gospel of Philip; others have disagreed. The question has to be left open for now: depending on how we construct Clement's understanding of the longer Alexandrian Gospel of Mark and make it fit with his other writings, many answers could be provided.

Bishop Avitus of Vienne to His Excellency Ansmundus (pp. 232-234); introduction & translation by Maureen A. Tilley

Here we have a letter written by Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus (d. c. 519), bishop of Vienne, for which the context has to be deduced from this one text alone. It begins:
"When I was at Lyon, the person for whom you considered me worthy to intercede denied to me the accusation that the whole world was shouting. I am really amazed that after he came to his senses and admitted it, he should have asked you for this favor." (p. 232)

Furthermore, the recipient is instructed (regarding another man) that "you must censure this man vigorously. Declare my inclication to him." (234)

Clement, of course, does something similar, instructing Theodore that "one must never give way; nor, when they put forward their falsifications, should one concede that the secret Gospel [used by the Carpocratians] is by Mark, but should even deny it on oath." (Theod. II.10-12) Such occasional similarities have, naturally, no direct significance on the study of Clement's Letter to Theodore, but they can provide data for our assessment whether particular details should be deemed anachronistic or not.

Laws on Religions from the Theodosian and Justinianic Codes (pp. 263-274); introduction & translation by Matthew C. Mirow and Kathleen A. Kelley

For the final example of interesting Late Antiquity texts are these collections of Imperial laws on religion from IV to VI CE. Let us begin with two striking laws:
"No one shall have the opportunity to go to the public and debate concerning religion or to discuss it or give any advice about it. If anyone hereafter should think [doing just that] ... he shall be restrained with suitable punishment and fitting penalty." (CTh 16.4.2 [E264], 388 CE; p. 269)
"Henceforth let no one, whether he be a member of the clergy, the military, or of any other position whatsoever, try to discuss the Christian faith publicly with a gathered and listening crowd, seeking to cause an uproar and an opportunity for treachery." (CJ 1.2.17, 528 CE; p. 267)
Do we really have here an order not to discuss Christian faith publicly? Many of the statutes here seem to draw a firm line between public space (such as "any place built for the enjoyment of the people", found in CJ 1.3.26) and sacred space (such as "religious buildings" from the same ruling), and rule that different rules apply to each. The context for such laws, as Mirow and Kelley explain, are largely specific situationsthe ruling from CTh 16.4.2 stems from a certain Arian revolt in Constantinople in 387 CE, for instance. Nevertheless, one is tempted to ask if this is not an example of a gradual move away from the old Greek ideal of public debate? Does Clement already share this idea when he dismisses public discourse with the Carpocratians and instead favours shunning them?

Carpocratians are, incidentally, mentioned in CJ 1.5.5, 428 CE along with dozens of other groups from Arians to Valentinians, Borborites, and Manichaeans, all of whom are forbade to gather together.

And finally, an example of blurred categories I discussed above regarding Evagrius: CTh 16.10.1, 320/21 CE (p. 271) rules the following:
"If it should happen that a part of our palace or other public building has been touched by lightning, the custom of the former observance shall be retained and inquiry shall be made of the soothsayers what it may portend. These [portents] shall be carefully collected and recorded and brought to our attention."
For reasons that are left unknown, this is the only piece of traditional religious practice that is allowed to continue, but many others (such as the practice of astrology) are explicitly banned (but note the early date of this ruling!). It is useful, however, to keep in mind that "[t]he extent to which Romans complied with laws is uncertain" (264), as Mirow and Kelly put it, and that the interplay between the perceived "Christianization of the Roman Empire" and the actual nature of Late Antiquity religiosity remains very complex indeed.

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.