Why Christianity Happened: from Jewish sinners to gentile sinners
This section is a combination of a macro-historical/macro-sociological approach along with some close reading of certain texts in order to explain historical change and how the Jesus movement concerned with Jews spread to gentiles very shortly after Jesus’ death. This section provides the important link, to put it very crudely, between Jesus and Christianity when it was law observant, the chronology of which I outlined in The Date of Mark's Gospel. The fifth section will deal with the next big step, the social reasons for the rise of non-observance and Pauline theology.
It is clear that the behaviour attributed to Jewish ‘sinners’ was more or less the same as that attributed to gentiles: the two categories were non-coincidentally overlapping to a high degree. Jesus’ mission to sinners provides the ideological impetus for the emergence beyond Judaism. But there were certain long term socio-economic features that were permitting, as it were, this spread. Macro-sociologists (e.g. P. Nolan, G. Lenski, and R. Stark [sort of]) have noted the emergence of universal religions (e.g. Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity via Judaism) in the context of the long term development of agrarian empires. This is for a number of reasons to do with increasing communications and Empire building which would bring diverse human groups in closer connection and gradually erode old tribal, parochial or ethnic views. I think this is right but there is a significant lack of evidence given (naturally enough though) by macro-sociologists to back up such grand claims. I qualify this (and in fact this is precisely my present major research topic) with reference to a universalising monotheism being much more widespread at, and much more developed by, the time of Christian origins (as should be expected from macro-sociological generalisations). And this includes much of so-called ‘pagan’ thought. Significantly, on Greco-Roman pagan monotheism, some of the research done has shown how, combined with various social and economic factors, paved the way for Christianity to become the religion of the Empire.
There were a few stumbling blocks for Judaism, should Jews wish, and presumably many did not, to develop into a more universalising religion. In terms of conversion to Judaism (more on this another time) there were problematic issues of circumcision (for men, obviously), kinship, ethnicity etc. But there were other aspects of Jewish thought that could actualise (to use a phrase I don’t use in the book) the potential to spark off a shift towards a more widespread, universalising trend, helped by wide ranging Jewish social networks which were part of and interacted with various non-Jewish networks. I give various reasons why, in light of the socio-economic circumstances of Galilee outlined earlier, the Jesus movement made the choices that set things in motion for the spread to gentiles very shortly after Jesus’ death.
In the beginning things were all law observant, at least ‘officially’. The rest of the chapter shows how the earliest gospel traditions were transmitted wittingly or unwittingly with the considerations of a shift from law observant Jew to law observant Jew and gentile. The key thing here is how the transmission of the texts are significant for pushing along these broader historical trends, how the the transmitted texts were particularly conducive to the long term currents of history. And I begin with…Q
Now calm down all Q sceptics for just one moment (and I know there are a few of you out there, including one well known one). I don’t define Q very strongly. In fact I leave much wide open and define what might be necessary for the debate. The debate functions with the loosest definition of Q as a shorthand for pre-Matthean, pre-Lukan sources and nothing more. While I believe in a general Q, I have not been convinced that this was necessarily a collection or a gospel or anything like that. Just sources for now, ok?
With that solved (note the sarcasm, please!), the real function of looking at early pre-gospel sources is that they were transmitted when the general changes I describe were taking place and so potentially back up my case. And surprise, surprise they do! Generally, there is nothing in what is generally labelled Q or earliest gospel tradition that contradicts any biblical law. There are passages that interpret biblical laws, just like Jesus did, just like plenty of others did. In terms of transmitting in light of certain debates relevant to the shifts I outline, I look in some detail at the washing of the cups passage and how this functioned in terms of contemporary halakic purity laws. This includes all sorts of details on the function of the impurity of handles and the transmission of impurity from hands to cups to drinkers and the various choices of words. The key thing here is the stress on morality. The same goes for the tithing passage which I also discuss in detail with some discussion of various herbs for any herbalists out there.
These passages are important for social interaction and an analogy (and it is nothing more than that) with the rabbinic people of the land partly shows how these traditions would function among different groups, including interaction of people deemed rich and poor, so crucial as we saw. I also show from a social historical perspective how traditions could function in contexts related to the emergence of the Jesus movement. Moreover, they justify an overriding of certain expanded purity laws with an emphasis on morality and the moral issues raised are precisely the kinds of discussions found with sinners (Jewish and gentile). There is some discussion of how this provides one reason (among others) why these specific traditions were transmitted in earliest Christianity in the context outlined above and tied in with the causal chain already discussed. There are related discussions too e.g. gentiles in Q/earliest tradition (there is virtually no interest). The key thing is that a cluster of traditions intimately related to the issue of social interaction among different groups, including those relating to ‘gentile issues’ were transmitted partly because they were very useful.
I then go and apply this to Mark 6-8 in the light of what I wrote on Mark 7:1-23 in The Date of Mark’s Gospel. As a reminder to all you may not have bought the £65 book (ok, £30-ish pbk), I argue with reference to contemporary purity laws that this passage, including 7.19, is not an attack on food laws but a critique of the transmission of impurity from hands-to-food-to-eater, i.e. a critique of hand-washing before ordinary food (and note on top of this the constant contrasting of biblical law versus ‘tradition’). I take the usual view (though I was almost persuaded otherwise once) that the two feedings include one Jewish, one gentile, and that there is catch-wording (typical of haggadic traditions – see R. Aus) suggesting that there is something going on in terms of narrative interconnections. I add a few bits and pieces from Jewish cultural assumptions to back this up. So how does Mk 7.1-23 fit in here if I do not see food laws as an issue?
Well, it could be argued that all the stress on purity could mean that there is a concern for that widely held view that gentiles had some kind of inherent impurity (Alon’s influential view) and that Jesus breaks down that barrier. But it seems that there was no such thing as inherent gentile impurity. Instead, it has been convincingly shown (e.g. Klawans, Hayes) that gentiles were regarded as immoral and this was what was really 'impure' about them (though not inherent). And so there are various vice lists outlining all the naughty things gentiles got up to (idolatry, sex, theft, drinking etc.), the kinds of lists that make it into the NT. The kind of list that makes it into Mark 7.21-23… Now there are other lists without this frame of reference but notice that straight after all the gentile stuff starts happening in Mark 7. Mark 7:21-23 puts the concerns for gentile behaviour in story form if you like. On top of this note again the legal emphasis in Mk 7. On top of that note the catchword ‘bread’ in 6-8. I speculate that rabbinic traditions about bread-law-wisdom might be in the background too.
Anyway, this, I go on to argue is a major justification for law observance among Jews and gentiles in earliest Christianity. This, along with the ‘Q’ stuff, provides empirical examples. In one sense this is kind of window dressing because there overall argument does not depend too much on my readings being right or wrong. The readings are there to provde complementary empirical evidence. What is key, is that there is a movement toward gentiles that stays law observant in the early years, and that it extremely difficult to dispute.
So there is some discussion of the shift to gentiles. The final major section is how we get non-observance and here social reasons are used in a major way. At the time to my surprise (but not now) this final section has led to the most hostility from very conservative scholars but agreement from non-conservatives and the occassional evangelical. And next we’ll see how my tampering with approaches to social networks and conversion might explain the big step toward a new religion in its own right, the social reasons for the rise of non-observance and Pauline views on law and justification…
UPDATE: The 'Q' comments have been raging. Trust the Q-sceptical blogging community to have such sharp eyes for every single word (I mean that entirely as a compliment lest I be misinterpreted). See the comments on this blog, in addition to Mark Goodacre and Stephen Carlson. Any other Q related things I've missed, just let me know.