Tuesday, July 16, 2013

More Muddled than I Thought, but Not Totally Muddled

On pages 10-11 of The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Bart Ehrman states the following:

"Nowhere are the blurred lines separating 'acceptable' and 'aberrant' beliefs more evident than in the 'popular' Christian literature of the second and third centuries, literature, that is, that was written for and read by general audiences not overly concerned with theological niceties.  This is especially true of the apocryphal Acts, fictional accounts of the activities of apostles such as Peter, John, and Thomas.  These works have always proved puzzling for historians of doctrine, because they represent theological views that at times appear orthodox and at times heretical.  This is due both to their nature ('Romances' for popular consumption) and to the time of their writing, when such distinctions cannot have been clearly made.  But the blurred lines can also be seen in ostensibly polemical literature, that is, in documents that purportedly work to resolve theological issues.  This is why christological affirmations made by second- and third-century Christians interested in theological 'correctness' can appear so primitive by fourth- or fifth-century standards on the one hand, yet seem to be headed towards orthodoxy, with its paradoxical affirmations, on the other."

When I was in Indiana for my sister's wedding, I was going through some old papers, and I came across a paper that I wrote for a New Testament class at Harvard Divinity School.  It was actually for a class that was taught by N.T. Wright about the resurrection of Jesus, but a Teaching Assistant (who was pursuing a Ph.D. in New Testament) was grading my paper.  We had been given a list of topics to write our papers on, and I chose a topic about the extent to which New Testament authors agreed and disagreed about the nature of Jesus' resurrection.  Essentially, I argued that the New Testament presents Jesus' resurrection as bodily, and that the orthodox church fathers were faithful to the New Testament, whereas the Gnostic Christians were not.  I got an A- on the paper, but the TA left some comments.  I don't have his comments in front of me, but my impression was that he was questioning whether categories such as Gnosticism, orthodoxy, and heresy were as firmly established in the second-third centuries, as I seemed to be assuming.  In my paper, I referred to some early Christian voices that depicted resurrection as astral glorification in heaven, but I tended to downplay their significance; the TA, however, said that they were important and demonstrated diversity in early Christianity.  The TA also referred me to a book, and I think that it might have been Walter Bauer's Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity, which Ehrman refers to.

I'm writing from memory, so I apologize for any misconceptualizations I may have made in the above paragraph.  In any case, I think that my TA was saying that things were more muddled in the second-third centuries than I thought.  And perhaps there's something to his view, if Ehrman is correct that there are early Christian writings that are mixtures of what later Christians would characterize as orthodoxy and heresy.  At the same time, a big theme in Ehrman's book is that there were proto-orthodox scribes who took issue with certain conceptions of Jesus, and they altered the New Testament text so that the text would not give the impression of supporting certain heresies.  According to Ehrman, the scribes were not doing this to persuade those whom they considered heretics, but rather they were doing it for other reasons: so that the text would clearly say what they (the proto-orthodox scribes) thought it already meant, and to reaffirm the faith of those who believed as they did, while preventing believers in their churches from being swayed by so-called heretics.  So, even if things were more muddled than I thought when I wrote that paper, even Ehrman paints a picture of conflict between proto-orthodox scribes and others.

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