The infancy narratives–conclusion

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 28 In this post I’d like to wrap up my survey of the Christian literature devoted to the birth of Jesus. As mentioned in a prior post, this literature is surprisingly extensive. In fact, it was once as popular as it is now obscure. The reasons are that the infancy literature gave scope for endearing domestic scenes, to portray the family of Jesus, and to bring a common touch to the otherwise exalted messiah, the awe-inspiring Son of God. In modern times, the only infancy gospel to have been accorded a modicum of scholarly attention is the so-called Protevangelium of James (PrJ).  It was once a very popular work, surviving in many different editions. … Continue reading

Infancy narratives IV: The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 27 In the last several posts I have been building the case that the concept of the Incarnation was a seminal turning point—not only in the ‘birth’ of Jesus of Nazareth, but also in the birth of the Christian religion. In my view, the revolutionary conception of the Incarnation first occurred towards the middle of the second century CE. Before that, a diffuse range of non-incarnational Christianities existed. This pre-Catholic stage, before the invention of Jesus of Nazareth, was characterized by belief in a spiritual Jesus (‘Stage II’ christology). These early Christianities focussed on the aspirant, not on God or on a Son of God. These first century CE religious movements were gnostic, encratite, … Continue reading

Infancy narratives III—The Magi

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 26 In the preceding post we considered a work routinely ignored by scholarship and virtually unknown, The Revelation of the Magi (RevMagi). The bulk of this work dates to the early second century CE—about a half century before the writing of the canonical gospels—and reveals the evolving thinking in proto-Catholic circles regarding the Incarnation of Jesus. RevMagi depicts not a birth, but a metamorphosis of the universal Jesus spirit, that “appeared to you to concentrate its light in its rays, [and] that it appeared to you in the form of a small, humble, and unworthy human.”   The initial “we-source” itself is divisible into two parts: (a) an incarnation account in which the principal figures … Continue reading

Infancy narratives II—The Revelation of the Magi

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 25 In the preceding post we looked at two obscure infancy narratives embedded in Christian apocryphal works: the Ascension of Isaiah (chp. 11:1–10) dating ca. 100 CE, and the ‘New Source’ (73.1–3) dating to the early decades of II CE.  The passage in Asc.Isa is an early Christian interpolation into a Jewish work. Post-canonical Catholic interpolations were also effected (probably dating to late II CE), as we read from references to the passion of Jesus, his Ascension, sitting at the right hand of God, etc. Yet we recognize the earliness of this nativity account through its utter simplicity and its radical variance from the canonical accounts: the birth takes place “in Joseph’s house” (not … Continue reading

The evolution of the infancy narratives

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 24 As noted in prior posts, the evangelist Mark holds an adoptionist point of view. For him, the spirit of God indwells Jesus the Nazarene (“The Savior, the Holy One of God”—Mk 1:24). Mark’s adoptionism conforms with what I have called ‘Stage II’ christology, the conception of the spiritual Jesus dominant in the first century CE. The spiritual Jesus was incompatible with the Catholic conception of God becoming man—the Incarnation. The two christologies are mutually exclusive. If Jesus is a spirit, then it cannot be one particular man, Jesus of Nazareth. The earlier, pre-Catholic conception of a mobile Jesus (the saving spirit of God) entering into worthy people, now here, now there, resulted in … Continue reading

Resurrection & Incarnation in the second century

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 23 Evangelical Christians view the bodily resurrection of Jesus as “the most important event in the history of the world.” For them, Jesus’ resurrection from the grave is proof positive that He was the Son of God, that He was God in the flesh, and that He was the Lynchpin of history. Of course, the bodily resurrection means that Jesus overcame death (point #2 in the above link). That’s a very powerful message, for the fear of death is a basic instinct in both man and animal. The Christian promise is that since Jesus overcame death, we can too, for “we have died with Him and will also live with Him” (point #3 above … Continue reading

The Protevangelium of James

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 22 It may surprise you that the Protevangelium of James is a work uniquely positioned in Christian history for its capacity to shed light on the origin of the canonical gospels. However, that capacity is hardly admitted by the tradition, which classifies PrJames with the New Testament Apocrypha (lit: ‘hidden’)—biblical or related writings not accepted as scripture, i.e., not considered genuine or ‘true.’ Terms such as orthodox, apocryphal, canonical, accepted are self-serving and ultimately depend upon a circular argument: if the Church approves a work (that is, if the work agrees with its theological positions), then the work is ‘admitted.’ But if the work conflicts with the Church’s position then it is ‘not genuine’, … Continue reading

The ‘Watch and Wait Period’—II

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 19 Readers may not be aware that the traditional view of Marcion was my principal reason for fixing the authorship of the canonical gospels to the middle decades of the second century. However, in a recent post I proposed that Marcion was an invention of the Catholics, a useful tool in the fledgling church’s efforts to paint naysayers (those who rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the savior) as heretics (“Marcionites”). Now that ‘Marcion’ is gone, the dating of the 4G to the middle decades of II CE loses a good deal of force. Here I briefly summarize the reasoning that originally led me to connect Marcion’s presence in Rome to the dating of the … Continue reading

Pliny on Christians ca. 110 CE: Authentic (My view)

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 18 I have finished reading Hermann Detering’s chapter “Pliny the Younger—Christian persecution in Bythynia” from his book Falsche Zeugen (“False Witnesses”), and have also surveyed the rather copious literature on this seemingly obscure topic—at least, the literature readily available at my university library and online. While I have immense respect for the late Dr. Detering’s work, I have to disagree with him regarding these two Pliny letters (Bk. 10:96–97). Of course, few things are 100% certain in history, and Detering marshals evidence for his argument that the letters in question are forgeries. Uncharacteristically, however, he used outdated (19th century) references that became obsolete when newer evidence came to light in the early twentieth century. … Continue reading

Pliny on Christians ca. 110 CE: A forgery? (Detering’s view)

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 17 Adieu Pliny! June, 2011 by the late Dr. Hermann Detering Translated from the German by R. Salm with light editing for style. Note: In the comments below I play the ‘devil’s advocate’and intentionally give Dr. Detering’s argument a hard time.—R.S. It’s been a good 35 years since I first read the two so-called “Christian letters of Pliny” (Book X, nos. 96 and 97—in English here). At the time, I was—along with other graduate students—sitting in a New Testament seminar whose topic I have forgotten. I do remember the November rain prattling against the windows and, of course, the lecturer Dr. Walther Schmithals, who read the Latin text of the letter to us, amiably … Continue reading