Revisiting ‘Wild Thoughts About Scripture’

I have just come across a post by April De Conick of Rice University, A Wild Thought About Scripture, which echoes my own thinking as an ancient historian who recently returned to consider the New Testament, which I last studied ‘properly’ many years ago, with the fresh eye of someone who has been working in other ancient fields.

What struck me most forcefully when I began to work on the New Testament chapters of Band of Angels was how ‘deep and narrow’ the scholarly discussion of the earliest Christian writings can sometimes be. The best New Testament scholars are often immenesly learned in the history of how early Christian texts have been read across the centuries. Of course this is a marvellous virtue. But at the same time, it means that very basic assumptions go undisturbed, and basic questions sometimes go unasked. The whole question of the emergence of ‘orthodoxy’ seems to be one of those questions.

Most New Testament Scholars have known for decades that earliest Christianity was characterized by experiementation and diversity. In the English-speaking world, the 1971 Englsih publication of Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity has offered the ‘go-to footnote’ on that score for decades now.

But many scholars still habitiually think of early Christianity from the perspective of hindsight, looking for signs of the processes of re-ordering which we know will happen.  It is actually quite exciting and strange to think of early Christian texts without all that scaffolding, as if they were ‘just another text’ and we had to start from zero in figuring out who the author was and what he or she was trying to say.

Here is how Professor De Conick puts it:

We assume that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author’s intent .. I have come to see that the assumption that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author’s intent is simply wrong.  The authors of the New Testament texts were not orthodox.  They were not even proto-orthodox.  They had their own ideas, many of which were innovative, revolutionary, and wild.

Further down, she makes related but distinct point about the difference between a text when it is first written, and its long journey as a resource for the later communities who will read it and mold it into their own image.

What makes the text orthodox is its interpretation, one that is imposed upon it by later readers who had a stake in how the Christian tradition was unfolding.  We simply have inherited this interpretation and consider it authorial….This is not about Gnosticism at the end of the second century that somehow got the interpretation of the texts all wrong.  This is about the first century.  It is about Palestine and Samaria.  It is at the root of the Christian faith.

For my own part, I suspect it is too early to say how the first century will begin to look, if ancient historians can begin to imagine the genuine confusion of the first century, a phase of history when men and women were often faced with visiting miracle workers and had to piece together an idea of how to understand what they had to say, and how to find a place for it in their own mental furniture.

But if it is a disturbing thought, it is also in many ways a happy one. If the first-century people whom history remembers as the early Christians were actually quite uncertain about where the spirit would lead them, this may mean that they are all the more interesting to twenty-first century people, who face their own uncertainties.


P Rylands 464, Fragment of an unknown gospel (?). Source: Catalogue of Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library Manchester, Vol. 3, Theological and Literary Texts (Nos 457-551), ed. C. H. Roberts (Manchester, 1938), 24.


this post generated a lively & interesting burst on Twitter, which I thought it would be fun to paste in below 

Andrew Jacobs ‏@drewjakeprof 22h >> @kateantiquity

Agreed–much more interesting to understand even “proto-orthodoxy” as a much laster post factum reconstruction.

Kate Cooper ‏@kateantiquity 22h >> @drewjakeprof

Yes, ‘proto-orthodoxy’ in some ways even more disturbing than ‘orthodoxy’ – implies pre-ordained development more strongly.

David Creech ‏@DyingSparrows 21h >> @kateantiquity @drewjakeprof

Yes! (It is also a horribly unwieldy turn of phrase.) I often use early catholic (with a small c).

Kate Cooper ‏@kateantiquity 20h >> @DyingSparrows @drewjakeprof

by ‘catholic’ do you mean ‘universalizing’? (Not sure when I think people started doing that – what’s yr view?)

David Creech ‏@DyingSparrows 20h >> @kateantiquity

I think it avoids to a certain degree inferring progression while still acknowledging the continuities @drewjakeprof

Matthew Ketchum ‏@mattketchum 21h >>

We often avoid exploring just how WEIRD scripture is. RT @kateantiquity The Case for ‘Wild Thoughts About Scripture’

Andrew Jacobs ‏@drewjakeprof 21h >> @kateantiquity

Right–what if the only thing Paul and John had in common was Eusebius?

Kate Cooper ‏@kateantiquity 20h >> @DyingSparrows @drewjakeprof

Continuity claims can be deceptive. I speak for my grt-grt-grandmother along w/ 500 3rd cousins; who’s right?

David Creech ‏@DyingSparrows 19h >> @kateantiquity

It is a similar problem with the term proto-orthodoxy though, right? @drewjakeprof

Kate Cooper ‏@kateantiquity 20h >> @DyingSparrows @drewjakeprof

catholic (‘universal’) & orthodox (‘right’): both are claims around which I’d like to draw a line of some kind.

David Creech ‏@DyingSparrows 19h >> @kateantiquity

Very helpful observations. April Deconick often uses Apostolic Xnty, but this is problematic b/c many types… @drewjakeprof

David Creech ‏@DyingSparrows 19h >> @kateantiquity

…of Xnty claimed apostolic authority as well. Curious what solution you may have… And you too @drewjakeprof.

Kate Cooper ‏@kateantiquity 20h >> @DyingSparrows @drewjakeprof

I like the quarrelling cousins metaphor, since it makes clear that claims to inheritance are always contested.

Matthew Ketchum ‏@mattketchum 19h >> @kateantiquity @DyingSparrows @drewjakeprof

I like Brakke’s idea of many Xian identities/communities being continually created & transformed

Matthew Ketchum ‏@mattketchum 19h >> @kateantiquity @DyingSparrows @drewjakeprof

It’s part of his argument against “proto-orthodoxy” in his book The Gnostics.

Andrew Jacobs ‏@drewjakeprof 19h >> @DyingSparrows @kateantiquity

The problem is distinguish between a discourse of orthodoxy (among some Xns, by late 100s?) and the+

Andrew Jacobs ‏@drewjakeprof 19h >> @DyingSparrows @kateantiquity

+ contents of orthodoxy. And we can’t even be sure how widespread discourse of ortho is before 4th cen.+

Andrew Jacobs ‏@drewjakeprof 19h >> @DyingSparrows @kateantiquity

+cuz of particular ways earlier sources got collated (not just NT, but patres as well) to *look* continuous.

David Creech ‏@DyingSparrows 19h >> @drewjakeprof

This is why I follow smart people on Twitter 🙂 @kateantiquity

Kate Cooper ‏@kateantiquity 19h >> @drewjakeprof @DyingSparrows

YES! – now say all that in 1 tweet … 🙂

Andrew Jacobs ‏@drewjakeprof 18h >> @kateantiquity @DyingSparrows

Ha ha! I know–the limitations of the twitter format. We should tweet in Latin.

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