When Was Acts Written? Joe Tyson and the Acts Seminar Attempt an Answer

I’ve been a fan of Joe Tyson’s work from the first time I read anything by him.  Since then, I continue to grow more impressed with everything he publishes.  This is a book I will have to pick, both because he had a part in its creation and because it is a product of the Acts Seminar as a whole.  Here is a snippet form the blurb:

The dominant view in Acts scholarship places Acts around 85 CE, not because of any special event linking the book of Acts to that date but as a compromise between scholars who believe it was written by an eye-witness to the early Jesus movement and those who don’t. Acts and Christian Beginnings argues for a more rigorous approach to the evidence. The Acts Seminar concluded that Acts was written around 115 CE and used literary models like Homer for inspiration, even exact words and phrases from popular stories. “Among the top ten accomplishments of the Acts Seminar was the formation of a new methodology for Acts,” editors Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson explained. “The author of Acts is in complete control of his material. He felt no obligation to stick to the sources. He makes them say what he wants them to say.”

via When Was Acts Written? Not in the First Century. « Westar Institute Westar Institute.

Give it a read and then pick up a copy for yourself!

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Short Overview of Karen King’s ‘The Gospel of Mary of Magdala’

This semester I had to write a (very) short overview of King’s premise and why it’s important.  I share it here, for my readership.  Enjoy.


Karen King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala

Karen King’s thesis in her monumental book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala—that the origin of the Christian movement are far more shadowed in mystery and convoluted by diversity than is normally accepted by some parties in academia and modern Christian communities—is an important one.   King lays out the foundation of a realistic socio-cultural landscape; it is one that demonstrates multiple milieux wherein the various Christian communities are embittered by a sometimes-fierce rhetorical and polemical battle over which group has more authority.  Rather than the prima facie narrative presented by some early Christian apologists, there had not been a singular, perfect dissemination of ‘truths’ passed on from Jesus, to the Apostles (or Disciples—not necessarily the same thing—depending on which narrative one follows), to the early Christian church.[i]  While this particular narrative is enticing, especially in certain fundamentalist and conservative wings of the modern church movements,[ii] it presents an unlikely scenario wherein a perfect community is set upon by a wave of ‘heretics’—the so-called ‘gnostics’—who had been led astray by evil forces (à la Satan/Lucifer),[iii] in an attempt to pull individuals away from the perfect church.

Instead of following this status quo laid out by the author(s) of Luke-Acts,[iv] King argues (convincingly, in this author’s opinion) that this is fantasy.[v]  She presents a logical sitz im leben for these communities, providing evidence from other early Christian texts which show diversity and disorganization even in the time of Paul.[vi]  As the documents themselves suggest, testaments to the struggles within these communities from voices that probably lived through them, there had been no uniformity, no general orthodox doctrine.  With this is mind, King theorizes that what has come to be known as ‘orthodoxy’ must have originated during this polemical war between communities[vii] and then established as official church policy during some of the earliest ecumenical councils (like the Council of Nicaea) by ‘those who won’.[viii]

King then goes on, drawing upon later Christian traditions to demonstrate the means upon which the linear history laid out by figures such as Eusebius was fabricated.  She focuses, for example, on the Nicene Creed as a point of definitive later-Christian doctrine wherein a set of beliefs and foundational dogmatic claims are presented which, anachronistically, present themselves as ancient.  King aptly argues that even the term ‘heresy’ is itself a later Christian polemic instituted by the victors—after all, something cannot be ‘heretical’ if there existed no ‘orthodoxy’ from which a viewpoint could ‘stray’.[ix]  It is this so-described ‘orthodox community’ which defines the narrative, or ‘master story’, of Jesus.

Yet before this victory for the so-defined orthodoxy (to become known as the Catholic church—Catholic, from the Greek καθολικός, meaning ‘universal’, may itself be rhetorical), King lays out the struggle in a few ways.  She draws upon the ‘gnostic’ gospels, like the Gospel of Mary, to demonstrate some of the diverse sets of views in these early communities.  These views included: (1) no established order for rules, (2) the spiritual soul alone is what is immortal and not the fleshly body they currently inhabit, (3) Jesus as divine mediator of truth, and (4) no belief in an eternal hell or punishment.[x]

In sum, King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala presents a well-argued and supported criticism of some of the categories established by scholarship (these ‘scholarly constructs’) which don’t necessarily apply to the early Christian church.  In the process, she dissolves all notions of a status quo in the study of Christian Origins, showing that the early church was far more complex and contains more fluidity than has commonly been accepted.


[i] The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, 159-160; King writes, ‘The narratives of the canonical gospels form the basis for this linear history.’

[ii] Also, in this author’s humble opinion, this line of reasoning can be found in certain wings of academia, where language such as ‘trajectories’ dominate the tone of the early Christian communities, suggesting that, perhaps, there had been one original path—something that does not fit any of the available evidence.  Even if one were to presuppose that ‘Jesus’ was the origin and his followers moved in different ‘trajectories’, this presumes that the figure of Jesus was always consistent in his own teachings, something for which there is no verifiable data and thus should not be taken for granted.

[iii] Specifically Mary of Magdala, 160, ‘[Eusebius] wrote the first comprehensive history of the church, alleging that Christianity in its original unity, purity, and power had survived the attacks of Satan from both within (heresy) and without (persecution) in order to triumph finally in the conversion of the emperor….’  This ‘orthodox’ concept as seen in Acts 15.24, for example, suggests that those without Apostolic authority will confuse and trouble people, leading them astray; in addition, those who did obey and accepted Apostolic authority were strengthened (Acts 16.4). Interestingly, the idea of ‘Satan leading the perfect astray’ has roots in the polemical ‘war’ between these early Christian communities—which may be why such teachings found themselves in the Catholic canon in the first place.  Origen, in his De Principiis 3.2.1 interprets the words of Ephesians 6.11in this way, that Satan has invisible workers on Earth to lead many astray; ‘Sed et Salvatorem crucifixum esse dicit a principibus huius mundi’.  It is worth noting that some commentators have translated ‘huius mundi’ as ‘this world’, though often in the New Testament and the epistles, ‘huius mundi’ and variations of the phrase often signify the underworld/hell, or any ‘world’ opposite God’s holiness. Indeed a similar wording found in the Latin Vulgate, Jn 12:31 (cf. Eph. 2.2), goes ‘precips huius mundi’ where the ruler of the cosmos (world) is traditionally Satan (ἀρχων του κόσμον). Irenaeus goes so far as to say that these ‘heretics’ are not just under the influence of Satan, but are agents of Satan (Adversus Haereses 5.26.2).  This certainly seems to support King’s thesis.

[iv] According to King, (Mary of Magdala, 159) Luke-Acts portrays a ‘master story’ of authority, wherein Jesus lays his hands on the Apostles, granting them authority, and later these Apostles lay hands on others granting them authority, and thus authority and truth are transmitted, as the narrative goes, from individual to individual, but ultimately from Jesus himself.  This is demonstrated in verses like Luke 10.16 and 22.29 (cf. Acts 1.5, 1.15, and 6.6).

[v] Mary of Magdala, 157; King suggests that the gnostic gospels and other early texts are instrumental in ‘drawing aside the curtain of later Christian perspectives.’

[vi] Such as in 1 Cor. 15.12, where Paul contends with communities which seem to deny the resurrection of the dead.  Though prominently the disagreements between Paul and the so-called Jerusalem Pillars; what is noteworthy is that Paul seems to have, as well as earn, authority despite the fact that he did not know Jesus personally (and according to tradition, the Jerusalem Pillars did, though Paul does not explicitly suggest this).  One has to wonder about the implications of this, whereby Paul has authority and continues to gain authority even after his death—particularly through these so-called gnostic communities—and yet none of the Jerusalem Pillars’ works survive (presuming they wrote something down in the first place).

[vii] This is supported by the Easter cyclical by Athanasius of Alexandria, where he suggests in 367—42 years after the Council of Nicaea—the canon has been ‘accredited as divine’; the suggestion, even following the council’s proclamations, seems to be that there still exists diversity even in post-orthodox-doctrinal communities which may be using texts deemed ‘heretical’.

[viii] Mary of Magdala, 157.

[ix] She writes, ‘…in practice “heresy” can only be identified by hindsight, instituting the norms of a later age as a standard for the earlier period.’  Mary of Magdala, 160.

[x] Mary of Magdala, 30-34.  She also draws upon various texts to express the diversity issues between the communities, like the Gospel of Thomas which demonstrates that the true means to immortality are through Jesus’ teachings, and the Gospel of Truth and Mary both suggest that Jesus saved people from suffering, not by suffering.


Note to readers: I dislike Karen King’s title.  I think it is a little misleading. While I did not include this in the paper (I wanted to get a good grade),  I think it is important to stress that King may be swaying public opinion here, since the Gospel of Mary is not the ‘Gospel of Mary of Magdala‘.  And while it is presumed that the Gospel of Mary is about ‘Mary of Magdala’ is doesn’t necessarily mean that we have a specific, isolated figure.  Instead, and I agree with Mark Goodacre, that what we have is a composite ‘Mary’ figure.  See Goodacre’s brilliant expose on this here:

Danielle Tumminio and Candida Moss on Christian Martyrdom

I am currently writing up my review (which goes up on March 9th) of Candida Moss’ new book The Myth of Persecution, but here is a snippet of an excellent interview of Dr. Moss over at HuffPo.

But intriguingly, the historical evidence for systematic persecution of Christians by Jews and Romans is actually very slim. There were only a few years before the rise of the emperor Constantine that Christians were sought out by the authorities just for being Christians. The stories about early Christian martyrs have been edited, expanded, and sometimes even invented, giving the impression that Christians were under constant attack. This mistaken impression is important because it fosters a sense of Christian victimhood and that victim mentality continues to rear its head in modern politics and society. It’s difficult to imagine that people could make the same claims about persecution today were it not for the idea that Christians have always been persecuted.

And my favorite part:

You’re both a historian and a person of faith. Some of the historical evidence you offer in this book may be challenging for people of faith to read. Was it challenging for you to write? What would you say to those readers who might struggle with the historical evidence in this book?

In a word, yes. To those readers who might struggle with this book, I would say that you can appreciate the martyrs without subscribing to the view that Christians were, are, and always have been persecuted. We still have an obligation to get our facts straight, however painful that might be.

via Danielle Tumminio: Candida Moss on Whether Christian Martyrs are a Myth.

As many of my readers know, I’ve suggested something similar before about Paul and also about Ignatius.  I encourage everyone to check out the interview and return here on March 9th for my review.

C-logging: Variants and Manuscripts (Or Textual Criticism vs Literary Criticism)

In my previous post I discussed some of the difficulties of Textual Criticism, but I probably could have spent more time on an example.  The opportunity came up in class tonight.

Since the professor was out sick, she assigned some work for us to do on the accompanying message board on a Rutgers-run website meant to give an additional resource for classes.  One of the students responded to my criticisms but either because I wasn’t clear or they misunderstood, presumed I was suggesting that TC is a flawed analysis.  I responded in this manner:


I am not so sure I’d say that TC is a flawed analysis.  It depends on the question, doesn’t it?  If I wanted to demonstrate that the many differences between manuscripts make it difficult to compile an ‘authoritative New Testament’ (that is, a New Testament that is the closest to the original), TC is the perfect method to use.  But if I wanted to explain why these differences exist, TC is not helpful.

For example, in Matt. 3.15, some manuscripts contain an additional sentence.  The original:

But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

In some manuscripts, the text goes:

But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented; and when he was baptized a huge light shone from the water so that all who were near were frightened.

So why the addition?  Was it original?  Well this addition is found in some of the Old Latin manuscripts.  So someone arguing from a TC perspective might argue that this is probably not original.  In fact they might say that, since Luke and John do not repeat this particular incident, chances are good that this is an addition only found in the Latin, and not original to the Greek.  It certainly doesn’t seem to appear in any of our early Greek manuscripts.  But does that ipso facto mean that it wasn’t part of an original composition?

Well, who can say for sure.  But this is why I prefer literary criticism to textual criticism.  In my humble opinion, I think that it fits the context of Matthew quite well.  Matthew’s Gospel contains many elements of light vs. dark (cf. Matt 5.13-16, 10.27, 24.29, etc…); this dualism is seen most specifically in Matt 4 and in Matt 24:

Matt 4.14-16: So that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

Matt 24.29: Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

The themes are clear, from beginning to end.  Matthew is playing with this dualism up until the passion narrative, where at the time of the death of Jesus, there was a darkness over the land (Matt 27.45).  This is intentional, mind you.  Matthew is drawing upon motifs found commonly in the Hebrew Bible.  The thematic elements of Matt 24 are found in Zechariah 14.7:

And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the Lord, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light.

And the author of Matthew ties this all together when the angel appears to the women outside the tomb in Matt 28.  His appearance “is like lightening”.  Indeed, Zechariah writes of this period of time that “Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.”  (14.5) And in Matthew is the only appearance of the holy ones rising from the graves (located, actually, on the Mount of Olives…mentioned in Zech 14.4):

The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. (Matt 27.52)

Now, I could belabor the point and make a paper out of this.  But my argument here is that TC, while very useful at certain things, is not useful entirely–that is, I don’t think it is very effective in and of itself.  It lacks that exegetical function that is so valuable to literary theory.  By my argument, the variant containing Jesus being baptized, with a light coming up from below, just adds to the same motifs found throughout Matthew.  I don’t know if it was present in an original–I am skeptical that an “original” existed at all (perhaps there were many originals and not just a single Matthew.  After all, the name ‘Matthew’ is just a designation we give to this collection of variants!).  The Textual Critic like Ehrman might wholly dismiss this variant simply because it isn’t present in some early Greek manuscripts.  But, I’m not so sure.  Even if it had been a later addition, it certainly adds another flavor to the narrative, don’t you think?

Clogging: Blogging About My ‘Introduction to the New Testament’ Class (Week 2)

So this semester, I am taking an Introduction to New Testament course.  This is a 200 level course and I’m pretty excited about it so far (if only because I predict an easy ‘A’).  While I anticipate a good grade (I’ve been studying the subject independently for years now and have published on the subject), I have an excellent professor–who is both clever and attentive to the details–and am guaranteed to learn much from her as the course progresses throughout the semester.

The one gripe I have–of course there is always one, right?–is that we are using Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (5th Edition).  Don’t get me wrong, it is an excellent ‘introduction’ book in some respects, especially when dealing with Textual Criticism.  For the average student in the class who is only taking the course for kicks, because they think it will reinforce their beliefs, or because they need it as a prerequisite for another course, I imagine it works out just fine as it covers the mainstream view nicely.  But it has some factual errors and glosses over too many important details that I feel are rather important.   On the plus side, my professor recognizes the books shortcomings.

Anyway, some important subject matter before going forward.

One of the really fantastic things about this class is that it really gives me a new take on exactly what it is that the general person knows about the Bible.  As someone who has been involved in academia for going on five years now and who is intricately involved in the Biblioblogging community, it is easy to lose sight over the little things–for example, there are many who still get hung up on how to define ‘manuscript’ or ‘variant’ (something I see as common knowledge).  Even New Testament terms like ‘Textual Criticism’ are old hat for me.  So being *in a class* and listening to conversations from fellow students (many of whom have not been as involved as I have) is a really important learning experience for me.

Since I am blogging through the class, I should state some general practices of the blog here for the reader so they know where I stand.  First, I will not be giving away any test or quiz information about the course (sorry to all the students who will be taking the same class in the years to come).  Second, all opinions expressed herein are mine alone.  All feedback and comments are welcome, so long as you follow the comment policy.

Now, some thoughts on this past week’s readings and conversations.  We started off by reading about Textual Criticism and the state of our current textual evidence.  Nothing here is necessarily new to me, but perhaps some of you will enjoy it.

Textual Criticism (briefly defined):

  • Textual Criticism is the academic process of analyzing the thousands of variant manuscripts in an attempt to locate the most recent context based upon our manuscript attestation.

Bulleted list of some benefits and problems with Textual Criticism:

    1. Textual Criticism (TC) plays a big part in our conversations over the next few weeks.  It’s very important and, in my mind, supports our understanding of the manner in which the transmission and reception of the New Testament texts occurred throughout the early Christian centuries.  But there are some factors that limit TC as a firm and (always) useful methodology.
      • We don’t have the autographa.  So one has to ask: How accurate are our manuscripts? How can we even begin to answer this question?
      • Without the autographa, we have no direct knowledge of what the original texts might have said–or how much was added or removed, or how ‘controversial’ it might have been compared to our accepted textual representation.
      • All the current Bible’s are the products of scholarly reconstruction.  In other words, the Bible we now possess (or more accurately, the version of the Bible you use) is not ‘the original word of god’ but the result of scholars picking and choosing (voting is often involved) on which particular variant is accepted into the volume.  Some variants disagree on rather important details (i.e., whether or not Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ in Lk 23.34–some ancient manuscripts omit this and many believe this was a later addition to the Gos. of Luke; or it may have been removed and then later re-added, but who knows for sure?).  So this process can–with the example given in class of Paul writes (or is portrayed to have written) “women must be silent in church”, it’s inclusion or removal from a version can produce an edition of the New Testament that is more suitable for a feminist or more suitable for a misogynist (it is crazy how extremely dichotomous the texts can be, the implications of how this might impact exegesis notwithstanding).
    1. TC also takes much for granted (i.e., it doesn’t analyze the reasons why a text might have been altered in a specific way, or if it does, it neglects imitatio or reception criticism).  The function of the text is lost.  For example, the very definition of ‘variant’ presumes a standard by which all other manuscripts have deviated–it implies, essentially, that a variant is ‘wrong’.  This, in my humble opinion, is not how ancient texts should be read.  “Right” and “wrong”, “standard” and “deviated” are terms that are not helpful, and perhaps should not applied anachronistically.  That isn’t to say that anyone in particular is making such an argument (though some do), simply that such language has the context to evoke these sorts of thoughts about the manuscripts.  Besides, it is the function of the text that is most relevant to the conversation, since we do not have any of the originals–all we have are the representations of copies of originals and at best that can only give us an understanding of what later Christians valued (certainly not the first ‘Christians’).  We can only refer to the books of the New Testament as ‘the version we now have’; this limits our understanding of the history of Early Christianity (to the point where one has to question if we have any evidence of the period at all).
      • This also means that using this method to date texts is essentially useless.  While we can see how the texts we have were altered and transmitted, what we don’t have is a grounding for the composition of the texts (since, again, we don’t have the originals).  How were these texts composed, when, and with what narrative constructions in mind?  Was this originally a vocal/oral narrative?  If so, how much had that original performance changed in its telling prior to someone writing it down?  What was added between its performance form and its written form?  Did it start as just a passion play or did it evolve into that?  Did the original narrative contain  an infancy or birth narrative that is now lost from our version of Mark (probably not, but who knows)?  Without answers to these questions, all dating is tentative and even textually it is impossible to know how late or early our Gospels are (though there are many tentative arguments).
      • As an example to the above, Mark 13 is used often to date Mark after (or before, depending on your particular theological beliefs) the fall of the Temple since he “predicts” the fall (the argument goes: Mark must have written this in after the destruction of the Temple, after 70 CE, to give Jesus credibility as a prophet).  But parts of Mark 13 have already been altered in the manuscript evidence (e.g., 13.14), and our earliest copy of this passage comes to us via the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 4th Century (so far as I’m aware).  between the time the Gospel of Mark is alleged to have been written to the time we have our earliest extant attestation to this verse, we have roughly 250 years or more.  To put that into context, that is almost as long as we have had the Declaration of Independence (approx. 237 years).  Between that time there had existed hundreds of competing theologies, vying for a chance to win out over the others.  Establishing ones theological framework using texts seemed to have been a common motif during this period, and what better way than to have your variant having a Jesus portrayed as foretelling events.  I’m not saying this is certain, or even probable, but it is likely and with no means to compare it to an original how can one use this as a definitive dating of the composition of a Markan Gospel?  Certainly we can say, “After 70 CE is when this variant of the text originated” but can we really say that ‘Mark composed his Gospel immediately after 70CE’?  I’m not so sure.    Even if this fragment were original to the text, there may be a relative function to it (i.e., Jesus may not be predicting the fall of the current Temple but repeating an ancient motif relating to Solomon’s Temple–a thematic element commonly found in the Hebrew Bible).  Again, this may be why using TC to date may simply be a waste of one’s time.

Awesome moment of the week: The professor used a stack of paper to demonstrate the variants and where most of the manuscripts fall in a timeline.  She set up an impromptu timeline on a desk representing the first four centuries in the Common Era.  Using the paper she immediately “discarded” about 90% of it.  What she had left she leafed out mostly after the 3rd Century CE and then tore up some sheets and spread a few here and there throughout the second and third centuries.  The visual aid was brilliant and clever and I’m sure that anyone in the class who had questions about the manuscript attestation had them solved with this one demonstration.  It was very nicely done.

Addendum: ‘Clogging’ = ‘Course Logging’ or ‘Class Logging’.

‘Is This Not the Carpenter’ in Paperback – Available for Pre-Order!

It’s here!  Sort of…  The paperback edition, published through Acumen (a subsidiary of Equinox), has produced the volume on their website for pre-order starting now!  And what an attractive volume it is:

1844657299

I’m quite happy with the relief of the Egyptian carpenter, making wondrous things in his shop, as an example of some of the motifs one may locate in the Jesus narratives; such a conceptual and engaging visual is perfect for our volume.

I am also thrilled to see the price significantly reduced!  While the hardback fetched for $110, this volume in paperback is available at a list price of $33.00, with a reduced (discounted) price of only $26.00!  Pre-order your copy today and spread the word!

UPDATE: Apparently the Acumen group has not yet set up the Amazon page so attempts to pre-order the volume may not work yet.  Sometime in the next few weeks, the volume should be available.  I’ll update this page when it is available.

UPDATE #2: It’s finally available for preorder now!

Thomas Thompson on Competence and New Testament Scholarship

Thomas Thompson gives it back to Casey on Bible and Interpretation.  We live in exciting times.  It has been educational, watching Thompson’s and Casey’s exchange.  Here is a snippet:

The Messiah Myth, moreover, is neither a book dealing with the history of the New Testament, a history of Jesus nor of the early church. It rather analyzes and attempts to trace the antiquity and nature of the sources for the messiah myth. It is a study in comparative literature. It deals only indirectly with the historicity of Jesus, as it treats many of the proverbs and parables that have been associated with such a figure and it comes to deal with the use of the Gospels’ for such historical questions, only insofar as they are related to the many sayings found in Matthew and Luke—such as the sermons on the mount or, respectively, the plain, which some conservative New Testament scholars, such as those involved in the Jesus seminar—and Maurice Casey—have considered ipsissima verba of Jesus. My purpose was quite different: to demonstrate that they were, in fact, sayings and tropes that were considerably older than either the gospels or any hypothetical, historical Jesus.

via The Bible and Interpretation – Competence and New Testament Scholarship.

Read the rest.

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