Tag Archives: church history

Book Review: How God Became Jesus by Various Authors (edited by Michael Bird)

This was written as a response to Bart Ehrman’s recent work, How Jesus Became God. With two subtitles, ‘A Response to Bart D. Ehrman’ and ‘The Real Origins Of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature’ it should be clear to any would-be reader that this should not be read as a standalone book. If one were to do so, then it might appear a bit of a hodge-podge of different aspects of christology.

The lead editor of the work is Michael Bird, who contributed to the introduction, conclusion and two of the chapters. The other contributors are Craig Evans (1 chapter), Simon Gathercole (1 chapter), Chris Tilling (2 chapters) and Charles Hill (2 chapters). After obtaining an advanced copy of Ehrman’s book, this team set about a quick response, which is why this was published almost in conjunction with How Jesus Became God.

As far as my reading is concerned, I embarked on reading both. I have linked to my review of Ehrman above, so I approached this work half-expecting many of my more critical points to be repeated and expanded by the various contributors to How God Became Jesus, though I was a bit wary of the fact that the publishers were Zondervan, whose tastes in theology tend to be a bit more conservative than my own.

I was particularly looking forward to reading Michael Bird’s contributions as I greatly enjoyed his contribution to Justification: Five Views where he advocated the ‘progressive reformed’ view of justification. How disappointed I was, then, when I read the flippant tone with which Bird had written. Appealing to mass popular culture, he takes some cheap pot-shots at Ehrman, unnecessarily denigrating him and failing to treat Ehrman’s views in a mature and reasonable way. Later on, he attempts to pass these incidents off as humour, but there is nothing funny about them. Rather, it is demonstrative of a poor lack of judgement on Bird’s part.

Thankfully, the other responses are, on the whole, much more carefully thought out. To pick up on one item, there is a good response to one appeal made in form criticism: that of the criterion of dissimilarity. If you’re unfamiliar with it, please allow me to summarise:

In textual criticism of the gospels, there is a presumption that if there is something written which resembles early christian belief then it must be an anachronistic back-projection of the gospel authors, writing into their books things that reflect the beliefs of their (later) times. The flip side of this is that anything present in the gospels which doesn’t readily seem to fit with early christian belief then that is much more likely to be a genuine reflection of the historical Jesus. To many this seems to be an obviously absurd viewpoint, yet in the world of form criticism there has been a loss of sight of the wood for the trees; one that Ehrman falls prey to, and which is dealt with swiftly and bluntly.

Probably the chapter that chimed most with my own critique of Ehrman’s work is that by Chris Tilling, where he questions the use of the word ‘divine’ and casts doubts upon the doubts raised by Ehrman as to whether Judaism was truly monotheistic. In particular, one of the targets is Ehrman’s use of Galatians 4:14 as the primary text through which to understand all of Paul’s christology.

Craig Evans’ chapter on the burial traditions makes for a fascinating read and could well be explored further. In some was, it was indicative of a slight problem with the book. That is, it is so specifically written as a response to Ehrman that some potentially fruitful and enlightening avenues are left unexplored. Had such routes been covered in more depth, then it would have made for a much longer book.

In conclusion, Ehrman was not openly seeking to deny Jesus’ divinity, but he writes with a kind of dog-whistle theology that is intended to show that the case for Jesus being one and the same as God is not as clear as modern christianity teaches. Such scepticism is needed for healthy belief, so one cannot reasonably object to the person who wishes to cast doubt upon the veracity of tradition. What this work does is cast doubt on the work of the doubter. There is by no means a complete rebuttal of Ehrman’s work here, but there is sufficient work done to cast doubt upon Ehrman, just in case one were to read him uncritically.

Book Review: How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman

I’m rather fond of Bart Ehrman. I have often found him to be a great communicator, hugely knowledgeable and yet wields his learning with gentleness so as to not alienate people needlessly. I first heard of this book when he took part in a debate (no doubt as part of a promotion) on Unbelievable, the Saturday afternoon apologetics programme on Premier Radio. His foil in that argument was Simon Gathercole who was one of several writers who had contributed to a riposte to Ehrman’s latest work (and which I shall be reading and reviewing in a month or two’s time).

As the title implies, this is a look at Jesus and how he came to be regarded as God. While Ehrman is no longer a christian, he retains his key interest in the origins of christianity. His opening thesis is that that while theologians tend to focus on questions of incarnation (i.e. how God became human) it is less frequently asked how Jesus came to be regarded as God. The obvious answer (that he was seen as God because he was God) is discounted as too simplistic and reliant on an uncritical reading of the gospels. His overall thesis is that Jesus wasn’t thought of as God in his lifetime and that a high christology only developed later on. Incorporating Jesus as the 2nd member of the Trinity was a much later development still. First, though, he lays out his approach for tackling the problem at hand.

He begins with a nicely deceptive piece of writing where he describes a charismatic figure from the backwaters of the Middle East, who had a group of followers who came to think of him as a god.

What he does, and this is what makes him such a brilliant writer, is that he makes some general points that makes the reader think. As I read from a christian perspective it is inevitable that some of his points are dissonant with my current understanding. Many of these objections are then addressed in a very short space of time.

Much of the argument over what is early and what is late in terms of theological development hinges on an assumption of a late authorship of the gospels. Unsurprisingly, John is portrayed as the last of the gospels to be written, though Ehrman puts the date of all four as after 70 CE. He references one of his earlier works in support of this claim, but no further backup is given. It’s an assumption that stands in stark contrast to, say, F.F. Bruce who advocated an earlier date of composition.

Clearly, the earlier the date, the less room there is for an elongated period of oral history. The shorter that period, the less time there is for corruption and therefore the more likely it is that the gospels are a faithful record of the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. When it comes to oral history, though, Ehrman seems unreasonably dismissive. In what is a clear sideswipe at Kenneth Bailey, he states, “Some people today claim that cultures rooted in oral tradition are far more careful to make certain that traditions that are told and retold are not changed significantly. This turns out to be a modern myth, however.” It seems to be a pretty obvious reference to Bailey’s Informal Controlled Oral History and the Synoptic Tradition, yet Ehrman isn’t even willing to grant Bailey a namecheck, let alone any engagement with the subject.

One of the most irritating features of the book, though, is Ehrman’s frequent use of the “many scholars” fallacy“. Throughout the book, he cites “scholars” who either support his view or whose work support a particular aspect of the argument he’s making. Frequently, though, they are not named or sufficiently well referenced, so it is impossible to follow up to make further enquiry. As a result, even the reader who comes to this work in anticipation of Ehrman’s critical analysis will be left frustrated there is insufficient support at crucial stages of the argument and therefore the force of the point being made is not as well backed up as Ehrman would like his readers to think.

As one would expect of a good scholar, he traces his steps carefully. He begins the study by looking at beliefs in gods who became human and humans descended from gods. The examples cited all came from the Roman and Greek worlds. He also postulates different levels of divinity, whereby a human exalted to the form a deity was only of a low form of a deity, not necessarily to the same level as, say Apollo.

Following the outline of the book, he then draws parallels with the above to the Jewish world (making much hay from the Nephilim) to try to say that a human being elevated to the status of God was not at all against the grain of mainstream monotheism. Crucial to Ehrman’s view is an idiosyncratic usage of the word ‘divine’. While in christianity and Judaism, this is an adjective to mean ‘of God’, Ehrman takes it to mean ‘heavenly’. The distinction soon becomes apparent when, having noted the various different expressions of divinity in the Greek and Roman worlds, he tries to construe Judaism as a polytheistic religion. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, most notably from Francesca Stavrakapoulo, but which seems to be reliant on a particular eisegetical way of reading a few cherry-picked passages and ignoring the whole sweep of monotheistic Judaism. In short, it is a category mistake.

From here, he moves onto a couple of chapters on the resurrection. Those who know me know that this is an area of particular interest as it’s the criteria upon which I believe christianity rests. Ehrman’s approach is somewhat novel. First of all, one has to note that Ehrman stops short of denying the resurrection. That’s not his aim. Rather, his idea is that there is insufficient evidence to be confident in its historicity. But he does think that the disciples and early church genuinely thought that Jesus was raised from the dead. So he doesn’t endorse the ‘stolen body’ hypothesis. In an interesting turn, he notes that many attempts to debunk the historicity of the resurrection have failed so he takes a different approach. Going back to the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (interpreted as a creedal formulation), he takes his critique not to the idea that Jesus died, nor that he was raised, but to the idea that he was buried. He cites, without endorsing, the view of John Dominic Crossan that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs. Instead, he puts forward several ideas, without being too firm on any of them. Just to cite one, he says it’s possible that Jesus’ body was thrown into a communal grave with a lot of other criminals.

The rest of the book is then spent charting how views of Jesus emerged over the life of the early church. He does come to express that there was an early high christology, as expressed in the writings of Paul. But he stops short of saying that was an expression of something that had already been understood. In other words, any evidence from the early church, whether that be in Paul’s writings or in the gospels, which indicate that Jesus was God are thought to be later interpretations. Yet Ehrman seems unaware that his approach is wholly dependent on confirmation bias. If one assumes that Jesus was not thought of as God in his lifetime, then any expression must have been invented. He discounts the other two possibilities: 1) it was a later realisation (epistemological) of an extant fact (ontological) or 2) that Jesus was actually thought of as being God, and understood himself to be such, during his lifetime.

The reason I’ve spent some time on the critiques is not to be mean to Ehrman. No, this is one of the instances where I have attempted to review in the same style that the book is written in. So it is something of an homage. So while I think there are gaps in argument, it is right to point them out just as Ehrman sees fit to point out holes in the arguments of christian orthodoxy. It is a well-researched, and brilliantly written book. Yes, there are flaws in the methodology, but it is my view that christianity needs voices like Ehrman who take a close look at the subject matter, ask probing questions and can communicate to a wide audience.

I intend to follow up with the response book, How God Became Jesus, so it will be interesting to see what aspects of my critique may be picked up (and probably articulated much more clearly) and what aspects I may have overlooked. For now, though, I do heartily recommend you read some of Ehrman’s work if you’ve not already done so.

Book Review: The History of the Church by Eusebius

Anyone who is interested in the history of christianity and has taken a cursory look into the subject will have heard various tidbits of information and will have seen then repeated in many a modern take on the first few centuries of the church. Some of these get trotted out in the occasional sermon, such as the idea that Peter was crucified upside down. Yet I’ve often wondered where they came from. It seems that the answer is Eusebius.

It is worth noting, since it has come in many versions over the years, that I read the Penguin Classics version, translated by G.A. Williamson with a very helpful introduction by Andrew Louth. According to this introduction, one cannot help but question Eusebius’ credibility as an historian. Famously, the Victorian historian of the ancient world, Edward Gibbon, had little regard for Eusebius. He is not the only one to cast doubt on the reliability of Eusebius’ work. Certainly, by the standards of modern historiography, Eusebius leaves a lot to be desired. While it is impossible to be neutral in writing history, Eusebius’ agenda and bias should be clear for all to see. But such a critical view should not be interpreted as meaning he is useless. Far from it; he is a source of great wealth, not least due to his habit of extensively quoting from earlier sources.

In some ways this is indicative of the maxim ‘history is written by the winners’ particularly here when it comes to questions of christian orthodoxy. He displays open contempt for those who were regarded as heretics and is also indicative of the rise of catholicism.

At the start of the work, Eusebius lays out his objectives. These are quite telling in themselves.

  1. line of succession of the apostles
  2. names and dates of various heretics
  3. the history of Judaism, post-Jesus
  4. the persecutions faced by the early church
  5. the martyrdoms that happened in those persecutions

The work is split into 10 books. An interesting point made in the introduction is that the work may initially have consisted of 8 books with the last two books being added some time later.

His opening book lays out his christology, which is demonstrative of a seemingly very high view. This is interesting in itself, seeing as Eusebius sided with Arius at the first council of Nicaea, an event which is never mentioned anywhere in this work. We get a sort of recapitulation of gospels, but viewed with the hindsight and interpretation of the very early church. For clarity, when some use the phrase “early church” they have in mind a period of the first few centuries of christian history. I use the phrase to mean the first few decades, with the most obvious event marking the transition between ages being the sacking of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, by which time the books that comprise our New Testament had been written and were in circulation.

From this opening, which is more of a background than anything else, we begin to get into the heart of the narrative. Here, the main sources seem to be Acts and Josephus, which makes for an interesting pairing. Our timeline seems to skip back and forth a little bit, so when we think we’ve moved into a distinctly post New Testament period, we come back to the odd reference from Luke’s latter work. Or was Luke the author? Well, even though the gospels were all anonymous, and it is reasonable to think that the author of Luke and Acts are the same person, it is from Eusebius that we get the names, particularly as he quotes Papias of Hierapolis, where we get the intriguing possibility that Matthew’s gospel was first composed in either Hebrew or Aramaic.

There are lots of little vignettes throughout the book that are useful and interesting to get an understanding of certain aspects of the history of the later church. But when it comes to the early church, there is scant all reliable detail. The aims are also indicative of quite a late mindset that is quite different from that as evidenced in the gospels and book of Acts. For example, point 1) above shows that there has become an obsession with the notion of apostolic succession, yet the only evidence Eusebius has for the first few links is “tradition” which is no evidence at all. Even the idea that Peter was ever a bishop of Rome is highly questionable.

The heresiological aspects of Eusebius are quite interesting, particularly to help see the kinds of ideas that were being bandied about. We never quite get to Nicaea here (recall that Eusebius sided with Arius at the council in 425) which is a shame, but we walk part of the path towards it.

Most of the books, though, are taken up with the rather gory tales of martyrdom. Be in no doubt, it does make for some highly graphic and deeply disturbing reading. One might almost consider, if you’ll indulge the anachronism, that Eusebius is aiming to gross-out his readers by being as visceral as possible. All this, though, does make for some quite turgid reading. It goes on and on and on. The only relief comes as the book ends with the rise of Constantine and his favourable treatment of the christians.

One of the sourest elements, though, comes with the exploration of point c). Eusebius comes across as what we would now describe as anti-Semitic. There is clear ethnic and religious prejudice against the Jewish people. So what the modern historian can infer is that in just a few centuries the church went from being a predominantly Jewish phenomenon, albeit with a reformed twist to its messianic eschatology, to being a gentile religion that had forgotten its roots and bore a grudge against the Jews.

Overall, I can’t say it was the greatest book to read. It is one of the great tragedies of christianity that there are no contemporary histories written of the early church other than the book of Acts. By the time we’ve come to Eusebius, we have a very different beast with a different set of priorities. There is plenty of value in here, though. It’s just that one might need to read through Eusebius a bit to get to it.

Book Review: Jesus – A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham

One might well work out that, being a christian, I am somewhat interested in the figure of Jesus. My aim really is to come to as true and fair an understanding of this figure as possible. One might question why I chose to read the VSI of Jesus – surely I know it all already? Well, while I might try my best to be a faithful disciple, Jesus is a figure one can never see him from enough angles. Over the next year, I aim to look at a number of viewpoints, some of which are referred to in this short book.

The opening gambit is the question of “how can we know about Jesus?” In and of itself, this would entail a whole other VSI in and of itself. So we skip over the details of textual and form criticism and jump to the working hypothesis that the gospels are, by and large, the most reliable works through which we can know who Jesus was. Other reviewers of this book object to this, as it does leave some key questions and objections unanswered. Though Bauckham does refer the reader to his earlier work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which makes a more compelling case than that presented here.

Rather than dive into the texts, Bauckham takes his time to let the reader get a look at the time, place and culture in which we may find Jesus. 1st century Israel/Palestine was a fascinating arena, though we focus mainly on the strands of Judaic thought that Jesus would have encountered. From here he looks at the one topic that Jesus spoke about more than any other: the kingdom of God. This is done in two ways, by looking at what Jesus did and also what Jesus said. It is in reading these chapters that one sees the need to have started with an assumption in the historicity of the gospels. In doing so, we can see what one of the major obstacles is in modern evangelism, where a healthy sceptical questioning of the biblical sources tips over and becomes an irrational denialism (think of a parallel between climate change deniers or young earth creationists, both of whom would try to claim the ground of reasonable scepticism but who in truth are impervious to evidence).

The kind of view that Bauckham puts forward is of Jesus being very Jewish, understanding the history of Israel and enacting renewal. Yet Jesus did this by reinterpreting the Torah and having a revolutionary way of looking at and speaking of God. The question that would probably be at the forefront of many people’s minds is “who is Jesus?” Yet Bauckham builds up to this, only asking the question once the background has been fully sketched (I say ‘sketched’ because in a VSI there is insufficient room to fill in many of the details). The answer is, as ever, many sided. We look briefly at Jesus’ identity as Messiah and as Son of God. Though necessary to include these, I felt there could have been a lot more said that would clarify the matter for readers who may have chosen to pick up this book having relatively little understanding of Jesus or what churches over the centuries have taught about him.

Naturally enough, as study of Jesus should, Bauckham eventually comes to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Bauckham remains resolutely orthodox in his stance here, affirming the historicity of the Easter weekend and again drawing on the eyewitness testimony, especially via the “embarrassment criteria” of having women recorded as the first to see Jesus risen from the dead. If anything, this chapter is a bit of a paraphrase of the Easter narratives, mainly as a combination of Mark and John’s gospels as well as 1 Corinthians 15.

The book concludes with how Jesus has been understood by the Church. The focus here is on the early church rather than views from the 2nd century onwards. He resists the idea that Paul was the real founder of Christianity, noting that that idea only emerged around the 19th century.

I would hope that most find this a helpful book. Bauckham is very orthodox in his view and doesn’t make space here for a wide variety of more heterodox views. So if you are looking for an overview of different beliefs, then this is probably not the best book for you. It is a view of Jesus that I largely agree with, even if some elements are glossed over and questions of high or low christology only appear towards the end and are dealt with in a very cursory manner. But if you have heard of the idea of a difference between the “Jesus of faith” and the “Jesus of history” then this is a good place to start to help see why such a distinction is false. And if you think you know who Jesus is, it’s never a bad idea to take a fresh look.

Book Review: Holiness and Mission by Morna Hooker and Frances Young

After finishing Paul and the Faithfulness of God, I wondered how I might follow that up in terms of my ‘religious’ reading. I had thought that I would go with something completely different and had in mind Julian of Norwich’s ‘Revelations of Divine Love‘. However, that work shall remain on my shelf for a little longer. For having bought Holiness and Mission in a sale last year, its title seemed to jump out of the concluding chapter of Wright’s work. I got the impression that instead of going for something different, I ought to take the next step in that same mode of thought.

Subtitled ‘Learning from the early church about mission in the city’ another part of my motivation for reading was to learn something about how to apply New Testament theology to my own location, having changed to city life last year.

As my header implies, this is a co-written book between two authors. How this manifests itself is that the preface and introduction are credited to both, followed by two chapters by Hooker and then two chapters by Young. The fifth chapter than alternates between the two. There is then an appendix which is taken from a Q&A session at the symposium which the two attended, from which this book sprang. That meeting was a celebration of 250 years of Methodism in the West End of London.

So let’s first look at the two chapters by Morna Hooker. She begins her study by a look at the issue of what holiness is and our call to it. This is little more than a sketch but would make a very welcome basis for a sermon. It touches on the nature of God and a summary of the gospel. That said, I wouldn’t wholly agree with the picture of the gospel that Hooker presents. While the shape is sound, I might quibble over some of the hues and shading.

So far, though, this is exegetical work. One could describe it as ‘theoretical theology’ which may enrich the intellect, informing us but not enabling us. To take it into the more practical realm Hooker then turns to the nature of cities. One might well question how closely one can take the life of cities in the first century and translate them to cities in the 21st. So while this is enlightening, there are few practical ideas that seem workable.

Picking up where Hooker left off, Frances Young takes us along a little later in church history. The emphasis here is on the Roman Empire; first how the early church operated within the empire and then looking at the legacy of Constantine. For those unfamiliar with this period of church history, then this serves as a good primer.

The real interest is in Young’s second chapter, though, entitled ‘The Challenge of Establishment’. Here, her history moves onto the figure of Constantine. Young asks many questions and prods at the answers, but remains somewhat coy about giving firm answers. Such questions include: “Was Constantine even a christian?” As one might guess from that, this is a provocative chapter. Yet it is open-ended enough that one may read it different ways depending on your background. Young notes that with Constantine, christianity took a quite different direction than it had previous to it being any kind of state religion. It was during this period that such things as iconography, liturgy and a growing interest in relics developed (not least the ‘true cross’ which was said to have been discovered by Constantine’s mother). From my nonconformist perspective, I view all of these as unhelpful elements of paganism that were unhelpful. If you doubt the damage done by an unhealthy obsession in relics, then I would recommend to you Geoffrey Hindley’s book on the Crusades. However you approach, or leave, this chapter, I would hope that you find it as stimulating as I did.

So far, the book has had very little directly to say about modern mission in 21st century cities. That said, I couldn’t help but think through some implications as I was reading and I would think that most readers would already have joined a few dots before Hooker and Young make their own connections towards the book’s conclusion.

There is much that could be analysed in great detail here, though I did think it could have been expanded and firmed up. As it stands, this seems to be the outline of a good framework of ideas, but with little flesh and muscle on it to make it move. What I noted from it in particular was the section on models of evangelism, noting that strategies that have worked in the past (with particular reference to the Methodist revival) may well not be the most suited to today’s cities. This, I think, is particularly worth heeding.

One other point caught my attention. Young made an almost throwaway line regarding her son, Arthur, about whom she has written more recently in ‘Arthur’s Call‘. She states that “he was baptized as an infant, therefore [he] belongs to Christ” (emphasis added). What surprised me was that such a functionalist view of baptism would be expressed by a Methodist, who I have always understood took a more symbolic approach. Hence it is the use of the word ‘therefore’ which I, as one who subscribes to the symbolic view, would disagree with. Though I am interested in following up on this with Young’s more recent book at some point in the future.

This section concludes with both Hooker and Young looking briefly at the topic of pluralism. They both express a welcoming attitude to pluralistic views, though Young seems a little more overly-liberal than Hooker. I couldn’t escape the idea, though, that both somewhat ignored Jesus’ maxim: “No comes to the Father except through me.”

The comments from ‘Voices in the city’ that occur at the end are intended to showcase snapshots of the views of others who live and work in cities, most notably London. Whether this then has appeal to those in other UK cities or even those further afield may be questionable. I would hope that others do pick up helpful thoughts, though I couldn’t guarantee that. In fact, the last chapter seems to detract somewhat from the rest of the book, as it is little more than a collection of paragraphs, with no overall narrative or direction.

With those few detractions noted, this little book provides the reader with some seeds for thought and a little food to help that soil grow. It is not a guide as to how mission should be done, though it does explain well the link between holiness and mission. It is not the final word in these subjects, but it is up to us to pick it up, read it, learn from it and then to work out the next steps.

Book Review: Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

At last, I return to Christian Origins and the Question of God. For those of you who don’t know, this is a series of books by N.T. (Tom) Wright which is he is still in the process of writing. I began in late 2010 by jumping straight to volume 3, The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG). At the time, I wasn’t aware it was a series, but stuck with it at the time. I have since gone back to volume 1, which was The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG). Now, as I write this review, the next volume, with the tentative title Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG), is due to be completed this summer and should be published in the summer of 2013.

In this volume, as the title suggests, Wright looks at Jesus. In his introduction, he takes issue with those who propose that we can know very little about Jesus himself and propose that there is a stark difference between the ‘Jesus of faith’ and the ‘Jesus of history’. Instead of accepting this proposition at face value, Wright sets out to examine who the Jesus of history was and what his aims were. He proposes that many Christian theologians have, over the years, examined very closely the idea of why did Jesus die, but at the neglect of the question as to why he lived.

The introduction is almost as detailed as that of NTPG and runs on for well over 100 pages. So this is a book for the patient reader, yet it is well worth it. The one drawback to the book, which is highlighted early on, is that, for the most part, the testimony of John’s gospel is ignored. Instead, what we have is a study solely of the synoptic tradition. This may frustrate many readers as it seems as though, in acting as jury, Wright is dismissing one of the key witness statements. Part of the reason given for this was one of brevity, as the book is over 600 pages long (plus bibliography and index) on the basis of the 3 other gospel accounts.

However, hints are given that he will return to the John, along with the other gospels in a later volume in the series. Yet I couldn’t help but think that this hinders Wright’s analysis from the off. I think most readers of this blog are fairly theologically astute (probably more so than me) so will know what I mean if I say that John’s account is more christologically developed than the Synoptics. Yet Wright seems to want to disentangle Jesus from Christology and so, while he often criticises Bultmann and his ‘demythologisation’ Wright seems to be following Bultmann’s footsteps very closely indeed, even if he is looking in a slightly different direction whilst doing so. That said, Wright does outline, at the very end of the book a kind of ‘christology’ thought it is one that is very different from what most churches teach.

An example of this may be found when dealing with the problem any historian looking at Jesus must face: the miracles. Rather than tackle the issue head-on, Wright somewhat sidesteps the issue and instead focuses purely on what the 1st century ‘audience’ would have interpreted by the signs. Yet dodging the historicity and moving straight onto the interpretation is the same approach that Marcus Borg takes to the biggest miracle of all: the resurrection. If you see his 2006 book ‘Jesus’ (not published in the UK until 2011) he says of the resurrection: “Seeing the Easter stories as parables need not involve a denial of their factuality….If you believe the tomb was empty, fine…..And if you’re not sure, or even quite sure they didn’t happen this way, fine. Now, what do these stories mean?” Yet Wright spends a significant amount of space in volume 3 of this series (which was the first that I read) arguing very much for the historicity of the resurrection. Whether Wright went through a significant change of mind between his writing volumes 2 and 3 is unclear, but his approach certainly appears to have shifted.

Wright’s portrait of Jesus is that of a man who understood himself, and was understood by others, as being a prophet, using as his foundation passages such as Mark 8: 27-30 and its parallels. The key theme to the book is what Jesus meant by the “kingdom of god” – a topic that I’ve often found glossed over in many different churches, presumably on the assumption that everyone knew and agreed what the referent was, even if it somewhat hazy.

After his “portrait of a prophet” Wright moves on to look at the aims and beliefs of Jesus. Much of this is tied in with what has gone before. It is here that Jesus moves onto the end of Jesus’ life.

In trying to understand Jesus in his historical context, Wright does seem to be missing a very big side of the story. He is keen to stress that in order to understand Christology you must first get “Jesusology” or else risk putting the cart before the horse. But I cannot feel that by focusing exclusively on Jesus’ reformation of the Jewish worldview and ignoring the impact on Gentiles and at any time and place other than 1st century Israel/Palestine, that Wright is painting a portrait of the horse and cart, only without legs and wheels, so that Jesus is so firmly rooted in his setting that he is static and has nothing of relevance to say to 21st century westernised christians. Only at the very end of the book is this problem acknowledged. The proposed solution is that everything changes with the resurrection, so the reader is referred onto the next volume.

This is not the only thing that may rattle those of us who hold to fairly orthodox (note the small ‘o’) beliefs. In in his discourse of Jesus in relation to “apocalyptic” Wright swims against the tide of 2,000 years of theology to deny that there will be a “second coming.” Though hints are dropped throughout the book, the core argument is given in Wright’s exegesis of Mark 13. Rather than consider this a new form of apocalyptic, Wright chooses to read this as a strictly Jewish apocalyptic in exactly the same vein as Daniel.

I realise that this review may sound quite negative, but that is not the impression I want to give. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to christians, jews, muslims and atheists. To understand christianity (and how it relates to Judaism) one has to study the figure of Jesus. And though this doesn’t cover all aspects of Jesus’ ministry and life, it certainly covers a lot and in a lot of depth. It is at once both enlightening and challenging, asking us to look at our worldview in a different light – just as Jesus did in his day.

Book Review: The Early Church by W.H.C. Frend

I love the SCM classics series of books. From this series of books, I’ve read two of Bonhoeffer’s (The Cost of Discipleship and Letters & Papers From Prison) and Moltmann’s The Crucified God. The scope of this book is more historical as the title implies. The subtitle of the book is “from the beginnings to 461” and this is the time period on which Frend focuses.

The definition of “early church” is a slippery one. When I tend to use it, I mean the period of the apostles, largely chronicled in the book of Acts. Frend uses the term more loosely, simply describing a period that is much earlier than that in which we presently live. He works chronologically, beginning with the historical and cultural background into which the church was born.

He only spends one chapter on the period I regard as the “early church” choosing to spend more of his time on the later patristic period. I read a couple of other books last year that would make a very good accompaniment to this work: Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman and Heresy by Alister McGrath. Both of these works cover the ideas that sprung out of various communities around the Mediterranean as ways of understanding the nature and person of Jesus, but which were largely consigned to the bin labelled “heresies” – and Frend looks at some of these debates as well.

Frend writes from a fairly neutral perspective. For example, there can be a tendency amongst catholic apologists, to make claims for Rome being one of the earliest centres of christianity and for the primacy of Peter as a figure in church history. Frend gives due weight to the evidence that supports this, but maintains a scepticism about the testimony of some influential people, especially Irenaeus of Lyons.

That said, he doesn’t really give an account of the origins of catholicism. In the first part of the book, he sticks to talking about “christians” but about half way through he suddenly introduces “catholics” but without stating how the latter emerged out of the former, which in my view is quite an important time between the early church and the medieval period. That said, he does go onto to give an account of catholicism’s rise to power in through the 4th and 5th centuries.

As the book is only about 240 pages long, yet covering around 420 years, it is inevitable that the work is concise. This is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength, because it allows the reader to get a good grip on the big picture and to see how various people and events interrelate in the grand scheme of things. It’s a weakness because it means that some issues are dealt with all too briefly. Each chapter ends with a list of further reading, so Frend is aware that some readers may wish to follow up with some more extensive study. If any serious criticism can be made, it is that there is an undue weight given to the events and people of the 4th century, as this takes up nearly half of the book, with relatively little on what I would regard as the “early” church of the 1st century. However, this may be due to relative amount of evidence available.

Much of the history of the church is a history of debates and disagreements. Some of these are over quite nuanced theology that seem, to me at least, far more trouble than they were worth. That is, there seemed to be a greater insistence on being “right” than there was over being loving and gracious towards one another. These arguments are given some space, but only enough for a brief overview. But if you just let your eyes skim over a paragraph without really taking it in, you will quickly get lost, not least in the multitude of names.

One thing that went through my mind as I was reading was on how the book focused largely on a relatively small number of influential or well-known figures and I was left wondering “what about the ordinary person who went about their daily business, living a christian life but not having it as their full time occupation?” The lack of such detail must, of course, be related to the lack of sources, though Frend does address this somewhat in his final chapter.

It is a very interesting read and serves as a great introduction and overview of the history of the church, though I would dispute the use of the term “early”. For anyone interested in this, or interested in how modern Trinitarian thinking developed, then I’d highly recommend it.

Church structure: a non-conformist point of view – part 2: Paul and later developments

Paul’s view

When it comes to church structure, one of the most explicit texts may be found in 1 Timothy. As with Jesus’ statement to Peter that Peter’s declaration of Jesus’ Messiahship should be the rock upon which the church should be founded, so there are some who propose that much of Paul’s pastoral letters are forgeries. For a more detailed look at this issue, and my critique of it, please see here.

Without having the space to present a thorough discourse on Paul’s view of the church, I shall try to be disciplined in restricting to those that refer to what we might think of as “hierarchy.”

I Tim 3 gives instructions on the qualifications for overseers (episkopous) and ministers (diakonous). Again, how these words are translated often reflect one’s own view, as they are often translated bishops and deacons, respectively. Such translations, however, are very anachronistic as the modern connotations of those latter words are loaded with centuries of history and tradition which were not present when Paul was writing in the 1st century.

Yet this still doesn’t seem to prescribe a set hierarchy. Rather, these are instructions for the type of people who ought to be in roles that seem to have already existed. In other words, Paul isn’t saying that there must be overseers (bishops), but rather he assumes that if there are overseers (bishops) then this is how they ought to manage themselves and their family. The same is true with the ministers (deacons). There is no imperative of how many there ought to be or of the scope of each of their ministries. For example, it doesn’t specify whether an overseer has oversight over a single community or over multiple communities in a given geographical area.

That is not to say there isn’t a hint of a kind of rank. Implicitly an overseer must oversee and therefore has some “higher” position than others. Yet the model of leadership that Jesus demonstrated and taught was radically different from that which existed in either Judaism or in the Roman military that would have been familiar in the region at that time. With the gospel being passed around predominantly in oral form (with the possibility of some written gospels being available at this time) it is likely that any church community would have been familiar with the topsy-turvy notion of leadership as service, exemplified by Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet.

A little later on, Paul asks that the elders be given double honour (Greek: time, pronounced tim-ay) which has connotation of respect, value, nobility or cost. So Paul may have asked that they be given double-pay, especially when you consider what he goes on to say in verse 18. So again, there are hints of kind of structure, but it is by no means prescriptive. So far, it follows very much what we might consider “common sense” but with the idea of a leader a servant still pervading the thought process.

We cannot discuss Paul and the church without looking at 1 Corinthians 12. In particular, to look at verses 27-31. To get the right picture, it has to be understood in context. Paul has been writing to the believers in Corinth about spiritual gifts within a wider context of correcting what appears to have been quite a dysfunctional and chaotic church. So in some respects, the whole book is about church life and the way individuals ought to act as part of the communal body.

This is the first time we see the notion that church structures may be something that are not man-made, but are God-ordained instead. Then there may be hints of a structure. To some it may be very clear since Paul writes “first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…” but this may be simply the order in which they were appointed, rather than saying that were appointed to be a hierarchy. What may blow a hole in this theory is the idea of prophets being appointed after apostles. After all, the notion of the apostle was one that Jesus began when he sent out the disciples (apostle meaning ‘one who is sent out’). Yet the prophets were around in the Old Testament as well. So we may have the possibility that Paul is acting as something of a revisionist and possibly claiming that the likes of Abraham or Moses were apostles. Otherwise, how could the apostles be appointed before the prophets?

From my perspective, I really don’t know. There are several ways this could be understood, but I can’t see if any one of them is more convincing than any other. So I will stay agnostic on this point and, as ever, I welcome any reason or evidence that any of you can provide which may help clarify the matter.

Later developments

As christianity spread outwards from its central base in Jerusalem, so the number of churches grew. It seems likely that the structure the churches adopted was dependent upon the cultural norms in which they found themselves. So in Jerusalem and Judea there was a mirroring of the Jewish hierarchy, but with a much “looser” structure that suited a new community finding its identity. Further afield, the churches were more Hellenistic in nature.

By the turn of the century, there does seem to be a development of hierarchy that is more definite in shape, though varying from place to place. If you read through later non-canonical sources such as the writings of Clement of Rome, The Didache or Ignatius of Antioch, you will find a variety of terms used such as prophet, overseer, elder, etc. Yet there is no agreement on who takes precedence over whom.

The need for some kind of structure was clear. If christianity was to be some sort of proto-anarchist community, how would orthodoxy be preserved? Several New Testament books make reference to guarding against false teaching (though we have little idea about what precisely was being taught) and the later patristic period, most notably exemplified by the writings of Tertullian, were replete with defences of orthodoxy and attacks on heresies. This does, of course, depend on the idea of the existence of a “Pre-Nicene” orthodoxy; an idea not universally accepted. Personally, I think it did exist but that it cannot be condensed into creedal form. Rather, it is to be found in the totality of the canonical New Testament. Others may well disagree with me on this.

What is clear is that over centuries a definite system was built up which ultimately ended up with what we would recognise as the catholic church which made its home in Rome just as the previous Empire was declining. This was no longer a church as the apostles would have recognised it, but an organisation that exerted rule by decree rather than teaching with gentleness and respect. There were many additions tacked onto christian teaching, such as the forbidding of marriage of the clergy which, according to Paul, is something enacted by “liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron.” The nadir was reached with election of Rodrigo Borgia as pope.

It was no wonder that having veered so far from anything recognisable as christianity that the Reformation occurred shortly afterwards. Amongst the many reforms that happened (mostly theological, some political; more than can be dealt with here) was what would be done with church structures. Some churches opted to copy very closely the catholic model; this is highly evident in Anglicanism. Other churches opted for less hierarchical structures, such as the Quakers and the Methodists. But in general, the point was that there was a return to the early church where practicality was the driving force, whilst being aware of not concentrating power in a limited number of individuals, where temptation and opportunity for megalomania is heightened.

Coming up…

Having left this part with a bit of a loose end, I will come to a conclusion in the final part of the series. Here, I’ll look at the present day and give my own view (remember that I speak only for myself, not for any individual church, denomination or organisation) as to the future. Within this, I’ll also be making clear my mind on the issue of women in church leadership, the topic which prompted me to write this mini-series.

Church structure: a non-conformist point of view – part 1: Jesus & The early church

This series was triggered by a link I posted on Twitter to an article on the BBC about a petition against women being ordained as bishops in the Church of England (CofE), as well as a comment I made about bickering over hierarchy being silly. The discussion moved on to whether non-conformist churches were any less hierarchical.

Twitter is probably not the best forum for discussion, given that each post is restricted to 140 characters. So I’m writing this to expand and clarify my viewpoint and to open up the comments for (hopefully) constructive discussion. This has turned out quite long so I’ve broken it up into several parts for easier reading.

Regular readers will be aware that I am a fairly independently-minded person and have a possibly unfortunate forte for pointing out foibles in others. I am not here attacking anyone and I hope no one who reads this thinks that I am trying to enforce my own agenda on others. I’m thinking out loud, as it were, along with all the flaws that come with it. In such a subjective area it is inevitable that my own biases will be evident, just as you will likely read this through the “spectacles” of your own biases.

What was the church as far as Jesus saw it?

It’s something that amazes a lot of people when it is first pointed out to them, that Jesus had very little teaching about the church. Indeed, I’ve heard some people state that Jesus had no intention of founding a church, claiming that one of his few mentions (I’m thinking here of Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s confession) was a later forgery inserted into the gospel as a way of asserting church authority.

There is the question of precisely what Jesus meant when he spoke of the “kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven” with some interpretations believing that this kingdom meant the church as an institution.

Neither of these extremities are views I subscribe to. In order to understand about what the bible has to say about church structure, we have to understand what is meant by the more general term ‘church’ which in the Greek is the word ekklesia. To translate this as church is controversial to say the least. Given that there were several centuries of history and tradition before the New Testament (NT) was translated into English, the idea of the church as a monolithic, controlling entity was well in place and understood predominantly as being the catholic church.

Yet the connotations of the word are for a congregation, assembly, group of people gathered together. It is certainly not a building, so it is very incorrect to point to a building and state “that is a church.” Rather, “that is a building in which a church commonly meets” is more accurate, if a little cumbersome.

Of the two verses in all the gospels in which he uses the word, we really can’t be certain what he had in mind; only extensive gospel studies can shed some light on the matter though I think all we can do is rule out various positive assertions, leaving us a range of possibilities. The closest I think we can come is that he meant a community of believers, living as people of God’s kingdom, according to the fulfilment of the Jewish Law which Jesus was bringing. But that is such a hazy statement with much more that needs clarification, it’s not conclusive.

What does seem clear is that the idea of a rigid organisation, governed by rules about who can and who cannot be leaders was not at the forefront of his mind.

The early church

The history of the early church is found in the book of Acts, which was most probably written by Luke, or at the very least, the same person who wrote the gospel commonly attributed to Luke.

So what does Acts tell us?

Reading through the first few chapters, we find an ever-growing group of believers, trying to make themselves heard in the heart of the Jewish world. There was the advantage that people from all over the Mediterranean were around at the time, as given in the account of Pentecost. The early believers were devoted to listening to teaching from the apostles and to communal living. At this point, the only hint of a structure is that the apostles were those who did the teaching, while everyone else listened. But the idea of communal living implies a very flat structure, with little authoritarianism being exerted by the apostles. They seemed more to act as administrators or facilitators, to use the modern parlance, than directors.

Acts 6 relates some of the practical problems that were created by having a large community. Out of practical necessity, the apostles made sure that there were enough helpers around for a specific task. Note that those chosen weren’t picked by the apostles, but that they effectively said “[sort the appointment out yourselves].”

Later on in Acts 14 we are told that “In every church they [Paul and Barnabas] appointed elders by laying hands on them.  They fasted prayed and commended to the Lord in whom they had believed.” This is the first sign of any structure starting to appear, but the term used for elder is presbyteros which is the same context as it is used earlier in Acts (particularly chapter 4) when it is used in conjunction with “rulers” and “scribes” and the high priest. So it seems that hint of structure had been copied from the existing Judaic structure that the early believers were already familiar with.

The book of Acts is by no means thorough in its treatment of the history of the church. For example, we really don’t know much about what happened to many of the apostles. The first half of the book has a strong emphasis on Peter, but he suddenly disappears mid-way, never to be seen or heard from again. We then follow Paul around the Eastern Mediterranean along with his helpers. While it is clear they were regarded as “leaders” of the early church, there isn’t much said about any formalism.

It seems clear that out of practical necessity, the early church did evolve some rudimentary structures which were based on those organisations they lived amongst and saw every day. There is no hint at all of the structure being considered normative, adhered to strictly in style or substance. Instead, the focus was on declaring first to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, crucified and resurrected; secondly, spreading that message to the Gentiles, inviting them to be part of the new community where was no longer to be a separation of Jew from Gentile, where all were equal in Christ. Any structure was a periphery to this, helping in the practical needs. Like scaffolding around a building while renovation work takes place; the shape of the scaffolding is dependent upon the shape of the building, varying from place to place, from culture to culture.

Coming up….

In the next part, I’ll look at some of Paul’s writings and take a *very* quick skim through later church history. Please note that all 3 parts of this mini-series were written prior to posting so if you think I’ve omitted something, it may be dealt with later on.