Book Review: The Gospel of the Lord (Bird)

The Gospel of the Lord, BirdGospel Studies exists as a relatively neglected filed which has long taken a back seat to the study of the Historical Jesus or perspectives on Paul. Yet—argues Michael F. Bird—this realm of study stands ripe with opportunities for research and theological growth. To begin addressing the historical problem of how the life and teachings of Jesus became the four-fold gospel accounts of the New Testament, Bird offers The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. 394 pp). Driven by four guiding questions—Why pass on Jesus stories? How was the Jesus tradition transmitted? What is the gospel and what are the sources behind the gospels? Why four gospels and why the four gospels that we have?—this historical, literary, and theological study provides offers readers rich perspective into some of the most pressing questions of this important area of Early Christian Studies. Continue reading

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The Marcion Question: Introduction

Over the next several weeks, Pursuing Veritas will be examining the theology of Marcion of Sinope, especially his role in the formation of Christian Scripture, Authority, and Canon.

Marcion of SinopeMarcion of Sinope remains one of the most intriguing and polarizing figures in the discussion of Early Christianity.[1] Labeled everything from the true originator of the Christian canon to arch-heretic, the unique views of Marcion continue to foster scholarly analysis within the field of Early Christian and Ancient Mediterranean Studies. Marcion of stands apart as an example of an early Christian whose conception of God and authority were such that his beliefs placed him outside what were argued to be the acceptable boundaries of the youth church. Perhaps most intriguing was Marcion’s use of early Christian writings as authoritative and his collection of some of these writings into the first specifically Christian canon of writings. Understanding Marcion’s theology, as well as his role in the collection, use, and canonization of Christian writings, has long been the project of historians. In an attempt to understand Marcion’s conceptions of scripture, canon, and authority, this paper examines Marcion’s views from a number of perspectives, arguing that for Marcion the work and words of Jesus of Nazareth were understood to uniquely reveal the purposes of the supreme God of the universe in such a way that any hermeneutical position denigrating that uniqueness, be they writings or traditions, were argued to be unauthoritative for followers of Jesus. Continue reading

Book Review: The Ancient Path (Talbot)

The Ancient Path (Talbot)When you want to understanding something, you look for information. When you want to make sense of a story, you ask people to explain things from the beginning. When you want to comprehend a complex event, you consult eyewitnesses and experts. In an age of self-help, independence, internet “research”, and self-sufficiency, however, fewer people take the time to consult someone other than themselves when it comes to questions, even questions regarding something as profoundly personal as religious faith. Yet there are many who would suggest that, in a marketplace of ideas as varied and complex as the 21st century, we should be willing to consult something other than ourselves for insight into reality. One such voice is John Michael Talbot, who along with Mike Aquilina argues that contemporary Christians must return to the wisdom of the Christian past in his book, The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today (New York: Image, 2015). Continue reading

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? Continue reading

The Evolution of God

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Conceptions of the Ultimate, the manner in which world religions understand the divine. Today’s article reflects on a portion of Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, raising several questions concerning the viability of his presentation of Christianity.

The Evolution of God (Wright)In the third part of The Evolution of God, Wright traces the development of early Christianity and its contribution to growing love and toleration within the Abrahamic traditions, arguing that the Apostle Paul, and not Jesus of Nazareth, produced the thinking and methods of inclusive incorporation into Christian communities that laid the foundations for the tradition’s latter success. However, in order for Wright’s summary of Christianity to fit into his overarching thesis concerning the evolution of God, he makes several claims concerning the historical Jesus, claims that I wish to briefly problematize in this reflection. Each of these considerations touches on an important question regarding Wright’s presentation, namely, does his view adequately address the criterion of historical dissimilarity regarding Jesus? Continue reading

Book Review: A People’s History of Christianity, One Volume Student Edition (Ed. Janz)

A People's History of Christianity, Janz

A People’s History of Christianity, Janz

While much of the field of the History of Christianity (and indeed, history in general) focuses on the great people and ideas of the tradition or period being studied, the genre of “people’s history” seeks to raise awareness of the ways in which ordinary people have lived throughout time and space. Admirable as this project sounds, it is not without its problems. In my experience, many “people’s histories” tend to make significant assumptions concerning the materials they are handling, most notably that the great persons/doctrines of a tradition represent the elite (in this case, the upper class and/or clergy) and these persons and practices were neither accepted nor practiced by the everyday Christians. Such accounts thus tend to draw strong distinctions between the received history of doctrine and practice and “the way things really were,” claims which often seem based upon conjecture rather than historical evidence. This is in contrast to a more balanced view which, while admitting that differing people often have distinct nuances to their faith and practice, nonetheless concludes that the great people and doctrines of the Christian Church are indeed great because they were affirmed by the community of the faithful comprising the Christian Church.

With this paradigm in mind, I must admit that I began reading A People’s History of Christianity: One Volume Student Edition (Denis R. Janz, Editor. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2014) with some skepticism. Upon engaging this volume, I found that despite its occasional slips into the rhetoric of “elite clergy versus everyone else,” the contributors nevertheless do an admirable job of offering balanced insights into the lives of everyday Christians throughout the history of the Church that shows their connections with the received Christian tradition. Whereas “standard Church history” will introduce students to the theology and writings of Augustine, a “people’s history” remains more interested in what parishioners listening to Augustine preach in Hippo would have actually believed and how they lived out their Christian faiths. This Student Edition offers selections from the seven-volume Fortress People’s History of Christianity that provide accessible and useful material for engaging a side of Christian faith that is often overlooked. Covering everything from the earliest Jesus Movement to the Twenty-First Century, Ancient Judea and Rome to Latin America and Africa, and topics ranging from baptism to power, this volume encompasses a plethora of materials worthy of study and reflection. Continue reading