Hetrodoxy In Early Christianity

A Discussion on ReligionRap YAHOO Group October, 2008

RE: [religionrap] Hetrodoxy In Early Christianity
Tuesday, October 28, 2008 3:48 PM
From: "Deke Barker" [deke@andbar.com]
To: religionrap@yahoogroups.com

DEKE: In many cases, Xianity was nothing more than an institutional shell that housed ideas that were totally unrelated to anything put forth by Jesus, Paul, or the earliest disciples of Jesus

SHLOMOH: I think that this idea has been on the rim of my consciousness for many years but I was unable to persue it. Can you develop it for me? Examples and some sources.

To "develop it" would require a dissertation (or three). To put it as simply as I can:  The Near East from ca. 200 BCE to ca. 800 CE -- an entire millennium -- was a hotbed of religious ferment, and not just because of the development of Judaism and Xianity (both out of the ancient Hebrew religion) and Islam (out of Judaism and Xianity, as well as Gulf religion). Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and Gnosticism all arose during that period, especially in the first two or three centuries CE.

Heterodoxy was the norm, even in Judaism: Essenes (presumably including the Qumran sect), the Xians, the Zealots, the Theraputae, the 'Fourth Philosophy', and of course the Pharisees (beth Shammai and beth Hillel) and the Sadducees. Necessarily, there was a great degree of cross-pollinization .

Nascent Xianity was especially ripe. Jesus established no institutions, nor did Paul. Jesus' ministry was exclusively with the Jews of Palestine. Paul was attempting to 'universalize' the Xian sect of the Hebrew religion, and arguably the Hebrew religion as a whole. Neither saw institutionalization as necessary except (in the case of Paul) in the most fragile sense, as both saw an imminent end to the world as they knew it.

By contrast, the Hebrew religion had at least some limited form of institutionalization, though nothing resembling that of Xianity just 300 years later.  Judaism had a de facto canon, though its boundaries were hazy and it wouldn't become de jure for more than a half of a millenium, OTOH, Xianity had no canon whatsoever.  

Thus, nascent or primitive Xianity was much better suited to 'deviant' or 'heterodox' beliefs than the old Hebrew religion or the emergent Judaism. One could take a carefully-selected handful of the trappings of Judaism (or not!), add Jesus as some sort of a father figure, and just run with it. And they did. In spades.

NOTE: When I wrote that they used the "institutional shell" of Xianity, I was probably going too far with "institutional" . At the time, the Xian 'institution' was no more "institutional" than that of emergent Judaism. Many of these groups had only the most tenuous of relationships with the teachings of Jesus and Paul. (Think of the 'People's Democratic Republic of Korea' and its relationship to democracy.)

As for sources, if only because of its convenience, I'd recommend starting with Bauer's Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. It is available on the 'Net (free). It was written in the 1930s and given some limited notice, and then it disappeared until the impact of the Nag Hammadi codices (and also the DSS) began to be felt in the early 1960s, when it was re-issued. Bauer has proved most prescient.
Another good starting point would be Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels. There is much about Pagels' work that I don't buy, but overall it's pretty useful, and it's very accessible.

The Nag Hammadi codices are collected in The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James Robinson.
If you are a real masochist, you might also consult Trajectories in Early Christianity by Robinson and Helmut Koester. (My favorite chapter is "Logoi Sophon: On the Gattung of Q". Seriously, you need to be a major-league masochist to get through this book.
A Ph.D. in New Testament studies also helps.)

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