Conceptions of the Ultimate in Early Christianity

This post is part of our ongoing series concerning “Conceptions of the Ultimate”, the manner in which various world religions understand the Divine. Today’s reflection engages Paula Fredriksen’s discussion of ultimate reality in early Christianity, found in Robert Cummings Neville’s Ultimate Realities.

Catacombs Image of ChristIn this reflection, I want to touch on two facets of her essay: the limited scope of sacrifice within early Christology and the function of holiness as soteriology and eschatology in understanding early Christian conceptions of the ultimate. Fredriksen rightly notes two major influences upon early Christian conceptions of the ultimate: Second Temple Jewish conceptions of the Ultimate and the blood sacrifice themes within the writings of the Apostle Paul. These she helpfully expounds upon, drawing out both the centrality of Christ in Christian attempts to understand the ultimate and also the central role of sacrifice as catalyst for early Christian thought concerning God and community. However, as insightful as her treatment of this theme is, I wonder if it does adequate justice to the full range of ideas within early Christianity concerning the ultimate. That is, how useful is Fredriksen’s (admittedly) narrow foray into conceptions of ultimate reality in early Christianity? Purposefully ignoring New Testament passages that were later favored by the early Church in Christological explanations seems an odd way to go about understanding the early church; and were Fredriksen specifically writing on the development of the ultimate in ancient Christianity, her argument concerning the centrality of blood sacrifice may stand (though this too would likely be problematized by the source materials she ignores). Most vexing, and most problematic for her overarching argument, is Fredriksen’s rejection of Philippians 2:5-11 as a suitable source. Most scholars affirm that this passage reveals a pre-Pauline Christological formula, making it one of the earliest possible Christian statements concerning both Christology and Christological conceptions of the ultimate. It is thus highly surprising that she crafts the scope and contents of her essay without this highly important passage. This leads back to our earlier question: how useful (and accurate) is the portrait of the ultimate in early Christianity when the scope of Fredriksen’s sources has been so narrowly drawn?

Ultimate Realities (Neville)In considering the importance of “holiness” within early Christianity, especially holiness as soteriological and eschatological category, I believe Fredriksen touches on a key point within early Christian conceptions of the ultimate. She writes that “through Christ, in the Spirit, these Gentiles are no longer common or profane but holy, and thus suitable to be brought close to Holiness.” (66) In this view, the “set apartness” of the People of God has been expanded, through the blood sacrifice of Christ, extending to the Gentiles and functioning as an eschatological and soteriological status shift, thereby also enabling them to become part of the People of God. This essay very helpfully notes the connections between this line of thinking (with Christ as agent of sacrifice and effecting agent for all) and Jewish conceptions of the ultimate revealed in Torah. But again the scope of Fredriksen’s essay is curiously drawn tight around certain Pauline passages. Were she to have focused on the impact of holiness on early Christian conceptions of the ultimate, Fredriksen would have been able to connect the Pauline passages she so helpfully exegetes with other sources of early Christian thought on Christology, including Logos Christology.[1] Her remarks about Hebrews in the “Later NT Writings” section would certainly have made more sense in the context of purity (especially given her post-70 CE dating of the epistle). Indeed, Fredriksen’s treatment of sources leads me to wonder if she was too eager to demonstrate the strong dissimilarities between the early Jesus Movement (in Paul) and later, more philosophically developed conceptions of Christology among the Church Fathers.


 

[1] Understandably brevity was an issue in the composition of this essay; however, Fredriksen carefully notes the purposeful rejection of certain forms of early Christian material without adequately explaining why those materials were not suitable for her purposes.

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