Sunday Religion Blogging

Haven’t done this in a while.

I just finished John Dominic Crossan’s The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus. As I said earlier, I grew up, was baptized in and was very active in a church that purported to restore first-century Christianity, so I wanted to see from a scholarly standpoint how close we got.

Answer: Eh…

Crossan, a former monk, uses both extant and hypothetical sources (the Q Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas and earliest possible versions of the four canonic Gospels) as well as studies of the dichotomy between rural and urban life in Levantine cultures and studies of ancient peasantry to examine how multiple Christianities actually developed in the earliest years, when the texts were presented in an oral tradition instead of written form. By synthesizing all this data, Crossan presents an early Christianity that contains multiple levels of eschatology (not just an end-of-the-world judgment, but upending of the social order as well) and reframes the resurrection as a political act as much as anything else. It’s fascinating.

Even if Crossan misses the mark on a few things (and the first 300 pages or so are a slog; I almost gave up a few times, and the only time I’ve ever actually given up on a book is Atlas Shrugged, a decision which I do not regret), he does stimulate quite a lot of thought, and I think he’s more accurate than most. So with regard to my own background, I will say this:

I don’t think we restored first-century Christianity. I think we restored first-century Christianity as it would have developed if you built a time machine and replaced first-century Christians with early 19th-century Americans. Does it make it any less valid? I don’t particularly think so; all religious traditions are misremembered and changed over time. (Our atheist friends would argue that it’s no less valid because nothing religious is valid. Within that worldview, that’s a true statement.) But a little honesty would go a long way.


1 Comment

  1. Most of us atheists don’t deny the importance of the texts, but we find irreconcilable problems with the way they have been handled, especially in the past 500 years. It is enough to cast enough of a doubt on the authenticity and, well, truth of those texts, that even the most basic tenets shrouded within are to be doubted and, in my case, rejected outright. It isn’t that nothing religious is valid. However, the books passed down to us (as chosen by a very politically savvy committee) must be doubted.

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