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How Big was Christianity’s Original Tent?

January 29, 2011

I’ve shared recently that I am set to attend the Big Tent Christianity conference in Phoenix early February.  That ties to a fairly recent determination of mine to see how I may, genuinely and with intellectual honesty, be able to still fit under any Christian tent.  For me, it has to be pretty big.

Now, it’s a different kind of problem for me to identify as a Christian in the mainly cultural sense that many mean in so labeling themselves; similarly,  in the way demographers often label people Christian.  Sure, I’m more Christian-influenced than Muslim or Hindu-influenced and such.  But I resist saying the USA is a “Christian nation” (and thus I am Christian by default) while most Arab-populated countries are “Muslim countries.” (However, in some of the latter, religion and state are, in fact, extensively fused.)  A discussion of all this is for another time.

For now, I’d like to take us back to “original” Christianity.  This concept, or “the early Church,” is taken as very important to many Christians.  The book of Acts paints a picture that many take as the purest or the most dynamic, empowered period of Christian faith.  But then, what exactly was the Christian faith in the first few months and years after Jesus’ death? This is a crucial and extremely difficult question.

It is in the programmed thoughts most Christians have on this that false assumptions quickly emerge.  And many of those thoughts are based on the writings of Luke in the book of Acts.  It is my contention, following that of a strong group of careful historical and theological scholars, that a key purpose of Acts was to create a picture of a unified first century Christianity, when the reality was quite different.  Certain theological agendas are interwoven as well.

Basically, it appears Luke was a Pauline Christian (but probably not St. Paul’s travel companion that the “we” literary device of some sections of the book might suggest–his adult life was probably after Paul’s main work or even his death).  He was taking further the task that Paul had begun–that of fusing a creative but heavily pagan-oriented new religion (mainly of Paul’s own invention) to Judaism and to the Jewish Jesus.  This was critical to the growth of Christianity, as the Roman mindset rejected religions without an ancient pedigree.  Judaism had to be built upon rather than set aside.  Now, did Jesus teach or even hint at many of the concepts that would become central for Paul and eventually for orthodox Christianity? Are they compatible with any form or sect of ancient Judaism of which we have record?

Actually, in terms of the concept of resurrection, yes, there was common ground with first century Pharisee theology as to a spiritual resurrection.  Paul also held in common with Jesus’ earliest followers in Jerusalem the idea that Jesus would return in a world-changing manner within the lifetime of at least some of them.   Other things could be cited also.  But Paul is noticeably and importantly uninterested in the actual teachings and sayings of Jesus, or any of his life history, circumstances of his death, etc.  His claims of seeing the resurrected Jesus, and his mention of “over 500 brethren” (I Cor. 15) who’d had a similar sighting describe a significantly different experience than the Gospel resurrection reports, and is taken by Paul in a manner different than the Gospel writers, including Luke. The latter relate material, normal-consciousness events, whether or not the authors considered them “story” (fictional) or actual.

There is much more to be developed than can reasonably go in one post to flesh out my point about critical differences between what Paul taught and what Jesus apparently had.  (I say “apparently,” as Jesus left no written record, which Paul did, and we have reasonable certainty that most of at least 6 or 7 of the works attributed to him were by him, and our earliest copies remain close in wording to his originals.)  Similarly, there are major differences in Jesus’ self-understanding, per the Gospels, and Paul’s interpretation of Jesus and his role.

So, did the Jerusalem followers of Jesus remain observant Jews, as the often-obscured evidence suggests, at the same time as Paul was interpreting Jesus and “the Law” (Torah) quite differently (as only a “schoolmaster” leading us to Christ) and opening nascent Christianity to non-Jews with none of the Jewish requirements? I think so.

And Luke, among others influenced by Paul, realized what a major problem this was… the tent was not big enough to encompass both positions, both ways of life, which they actually were, affecting male genitals (circumcision), diet and communal meal rules, etc.  Actually, it may well be that serious attempts to even put up a “tent” that would encompass these two strands of what would eventually become one major religion did not happen until near or at the end of the first century.  Luke’s Acts of the Apostles may be at least the first major literary attempt to bridge what appears to have been to Paul an unbridgeable gulf between him and other Jewish or Jewish-leaning “apostles” or missionaries who presented a “different Jesus.” (Read Galatians, particularly, and other sections of Paul’s letters with this issue in mind.) Incidentally, Luke’s work was amazingly successful in the long run, given what is apparent even on the surface… how much he had to add to Paul’s own conversion account, quite possibly even entirely invent or at least “spin” the crucial “Jerusalem Council,” etc, etc.

Let’s take the last century or more since modernity and “post-modernity” have re-visioned Christian faith and views of Jesus. Could it be that it has been sooo hard to bring liberal and traditional factions of the Church under a single tent, at least amiably talking, because so few have recognized that there was no original big tent of Christians out of which groups began to wander? Rather the New Testament is a record of distinct movements (more than just two–the above is a simplification) that did not begin together and never did actually unify or come to even “agree to disagree?”  Is a part of our misreading of it, missing this point, that we’d like to believe the spin Luke put on things in the pivotal and influential book of Acts?

Perhaps if we take a more serious and objective look at what really happened to create the basic form of Christianity handed down for 17 centuries since the early 4th century, we will have better basis on which to find common ground, more deeply understand the religious dynamics that drive us and other Christians, and know how to construct a tent under which we can life and work more harmoniously and effectively. 

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