PREFACE

THE LOST YEARS

If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
Luke 16:31.

This book is about the lost years of earliest Christianity, about the 30s and 40s of the first century, about those dark decades immediately after the execution of Jesus. It is a silence similar to that in Jesus’ own life. Where did Jesus go, it is sometimes asked, in those decades before he emerged to public life as a follower of John the Baptist? He went, it is sometimes answered, to India and learned wisdom. I no more believe that story than that he went to Ireland and learned Gaelic. Be that as it may, there is, for earliest Jesus and earliest Christianity, a parallel period of emptied years and darkened decades. But it is also more surprising to have such lost years for a social movement than for an individual person. It is not at all unusual that the ancient record of a personal life should begin at full maturity. The emperor Augustus, who died on August 19 of 14 C.E., left his autobiography to be inscribed on bronze tablets in front of his mausoleum in Rome. But he began his story, “At the age of nineteen ...” Neither does Luke 2:46-47 pierce the lost  years of Jesus  with any historical information.  At  the age of twelve,

his parents found Jesus “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Josephus records a similar precocious situation for himself in his Life 9. “While still a mere boy, about fourteen years old, I won universal applause for my love of letters; inasmuch that the chief priests and the leading men of the city used constantly to come to me for precise information on some particular in our ordinances.” Be that, once again, as it may, the lost years of an individual are much less unusual than the lost years of a movement.

The obscurity of the 30s and 40s can be emphasized by the comparative brilliancy of the 50s. For that decade we have the letters of the apostle Paul. From them we know about Christian communities in four Roman provinces, Galatia and Asia in central and western Turkey, and Macedonia and Achaia in northern and southern Greece. From them we know about urban churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Ephesus. From them, with sociological analysis wedded to theological exegesis, we can almost fill a small library on the personalities and problems of the Corinthian congregation alone. From them we catch glimpses of past events in the 30s and 40s at Damascus, Antioch, and Jerusalem. From them we catch glimpses of future plans for the 60s in Italy and Spain. From them, above all else, we receive the temptation to gloss speedily over the 30s or 40s and move swiftly to those better-documented 50s. This book intends to resist that temptation. It is a deliberate avoidance of the seduction which calls those Pauline communities the first urban Christians, as if Christians were not in Jerusalem before Paul or Jerusalem not a city before Corinth. It asks this question. When Paul persecuted the Christian community at Damascus, what can we say about that community? Did it come, for example, from Galilee or from Jerusalem, and what do we know about the earliest Christians in those twin locations? Before there was Paul the apostle in the early 50s, there was Paul the persecutor in the early 30s. What was there for him to persecute?

There is an obvious objection. Do we not have precious information in what we call the Acts of the Apostles about those lost years of the 30s and 40s? We do indeed but with several difficulties. First, it is hard, without independent vectors, to separate history from theology and tradition from redaction in that writing. Second, Luke gives us a very general picture. It is like a summary of 1944-45 asserting that the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy and pushed eastwards to Berlin. That is absolutely true but, apart from omitting details like Bastogne, it says nothing about the Russians pushing westwards with the same destination. It describes the past in a way that renders the future incomprehensible. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles moves Christianity on the westward Jerusalem-to-Rome axis with nothing said about northward Syriac or southward Coptic Christianity. Third, you would know from that text about Christianity in Jerusalem but you would know nothing about Christianity in Galilee. In fact, when you put together Luke and Paul on the 30s and 40s, you would conclude that Christianity operated exclusively from Jerusalem. This book intends to give equal attention to Christianity in both Galilee and Jerusalem. It also refuses to replace the old ascendancy of Jerusalem by a new one of Galilee. Both, then, not either.

There are no documents from those 30s and 40s dated as Paul’s letters are to the 50s. How, then, is reconstruction possible or anything new worth saying about those decades? It is a question of new method and new material. My new method is an interdisciplinary combination of anthropological, historical, archeological, and literary disciplines. It establishes the sharpest possible context before any text is studied within that matrix. My new material is obtained from the earlier strata or larger sources of texts we already have available to us. It is especially significant where two independent early texts share common traditions which must, therefore, be earlier than either of them. But no matter what sources or texts I am using, they are always used to illumine the Christianity of the 30s and 40s in the Jewish homeland. That is what this book is about.

My title is The Birth of Christianity and that requires two explanations. About the word Birth. Conceptions are usually more private and hidden than births. Christianity’s conception was the Kingdom-of-God movement as Jesus and his first companions lived in radical but non-violent resistance to Herod Antipas’ urban development and Rome’s rural commercialism in Lower Galilee of the late 20s. Christianity’s birth was in that movement’s continuation as those same companions wrestled not only to imitate Jesus’ life but also to understand Jesus’ death. This book is about that birth. It presumes conception but does not go on to growth or maturity. Birth, in other words, is the 30s and the 40s. About the word Christianity. If you can only hear that term as a religion separate from or even inimical to Judaism, you are not hearing it as intended in this book. I use Christianity to mean Christian Judaism just as I use Essenes, Pharisees, or Sadducees to mean Essene Judaism, Pharisaic Judaism, or Sadduceean Judaism. They are all divergent, competing, and mutually hostile options within the Jewish homeland as it struggled to withstand Greek cultural internationalism and Roman military imperialism. What was Christian Judaism before Paul, without Paul, and even if Paul had never existed?

I conclude with Luke 24:13-33 which summarized in a single paragraph what it will take me a whole book to develop. Two Christians travel from Jerusalem to Emmaus on Easter Sunday. One is named and male so, in the protocols of Mediterranean patriarchy, his unnamed companion is presumably female. The risen Jesus joins them on their journey. But the road to Emmaus is not the road to Damascus. This is an apparition without blinding light or heavenly voice. This is a vision without slow demonstration or immediate recognition. Even when Jesus explains the Scriptures about the suffering and glorification of the Messiah, the travelers still do not know who he is. But then they invite the stranger to stay and eat with them. He does not invite them. They invite him.

Luke 24:28-29. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.

You will notice how that invitation is emphasized. The pair have presumably arrived at their village home and, but for the invitation, the stranger would have passed on and remained unrecognized. The pair are, in terms to be used later in this book, Itinerants who become Householders, but it is invitation that leads to meal that leads to recognition. “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” as 24:31 put it. Resurrected life and risen vision appear as offered shelter and shared meal. Resurrection is not enough. You still need Scripture and Eucharist, tradition and table, community and justice or divine presence remains unrecognized and human eyes remain unopened. That is exactly what this book is about.

 

 

         


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