Book Review: After Jesus, Before Christianity

After Jesus Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements

by Erin Vearncombe, Brandon Scott, Hal Taussig, The Westar Institute

 HarperOne

Rating: 5 out of 5.

An insightful look at the first two centuries of the followers of Jesus. Asking questions is the strength of this book, the questions and answers are intended to further discussion on the origins of Christianity.

I loved this book. You know a book is the kind of book you want to read when it forces you to talk about it with other people and recommend it, even if it challenged my previously held beliefs or preconceived notions.

I was raised in the fundamentalist/evangelical church world. In that world, any sort of “critical” theology was not worth reading. I went to an evangelical liberal arts college, and attended two fundamentalist/evangelical seminaries. The college I went to was the most “liberal” of those institutions, and was where I first learned about extra-biblical writings and historical critical methodology. It was the only place it was viewed as viable, or at least, debatable. In both seminaries, it was labeled as dangerous/ridiculous and dismissed. The most attention anyone in my world gave to the infamous Jesus Seminar was to mock their usage of colored rocks to vote on which sayings of Jesus were authentic. Neither I nor anyone I talked to had a working knowledge of the reasoning or criterion used in these discussions and determinations. We didn’t need to; they were by definition erroneous.

This the nature of fundamentalism.

This book is the brainchild of that same infamous “Jesus Seminar” now known as Westar Institute/The Westar Christianity Seminar. For fundamentalists, this disqualifies the book from the start.

As I began the book, I noted that I was resonating with the reasoning of the book. Not wanting to read without some critical input, I decided to read some reviews to see what people were saying about the book. I was disappointed. The reviews I read reflected some of the preconceptions listed above and were essentially dismissive. The other tactic is to nit-pick the conclusions made by the authors in order to dismiss them, rather than give substantive alternative conclusions.

All of that to say, this books feels like new information to me (some of it is for everybody) and therefore just lends to that feeling of heightened interest that accompanies discovery. My training has restricted my expertise to the narrower field of Biblical studies that doesn’t move far from accepted/canonical sources. For instance, information about the first century world of Jesus and the disciples has its own accepted source of information, like Edersheim’s “Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” as the authority on issues of culture and historical context of the NT. Edersheim published in 1883 before major discoveries which might shed light of these issues like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library.

I share that to say that despite my training and 30+ years in pastoral ministry and study, I am not an expert in this era and subject matter. That is an embarrassing sentence to write. I am learning and when I read this book I put myself in the learning posture. I am no longer a fundamentalist/evangelical so I won’t fall back into old mistakes and take the book as the last word, but certainly will take in the information for further processing and study.

IN that spirit here are some comments.

A major premise of the book is that the idea that Christianity was a well formed, unified community with a clear corpus of beliefs that were universally accepted is unfounded. They talk instead about a multiplicity of kinds of groups/gatherings. These groups reflect a diverse set of ideas, practices, and beliefs. A provocative challenge in the approach of this book is that they ask the question: “what if Christianity died in the fourth or fifth centuries after it began? How would that change how historians see and understand its first two hundred years?” Implicit in these questions is the obvious burden for any modern adherent of religion: Is what I experience today as Christianity the same as what the first followers experienced and understood?

Of particular interest to me were the parts of the book that challenged word usage and formation. For instance, the suggestion that transliterated words are unhelpful in many instances. “Christ” is a transliteration of Christos (Χριστός) and is more appropriately translated “anointed one” as opposed to Christ. This feels self evident, even the most conservative of scholars would not object to this translating this word instead of transliterating it. But for some reason, many of our English translations transliterate this word, surely as a result of some developed tradition. But does this give us the right feel of the word? To broaden the conversation, the word “Christian” would generally be understood to describe religious followers of Jesus. But if we compare it to other words from the time, like “Herodian” (belonging to the party of Herod), the best understanding of the word “Christian” would be, “belonging to the party of Christ.” This translation opens the possibility that the nature of following Jesus in the early part of the development of Christianity may have had more political overtones than we have entertained previously.

Other words that are discussed are the terms “baptism” (which they assign the primary meaning of “bath’), “kingdom” which contextually may be better translated “empire,” and “Judean” which often is translated “Jew” or “Jewish.”

Other subjects I found intriguing:

  • Early expressions of “Christianity” are many times reactions to the violence of the Roman empire
  • The death of Jesus should be seen in light of the noble deaths of antiquity and that the death of Socrates is a template for these kinds of deaths
  • Gnosticism has been misrepresented in our common descriptions and definitions
  • Many of our texts fit into the category of Hidden or Secret Texts that use code to speak out against the powers that be. Demon possession was a common vehicle for these hidden messages.

I took Sue Monk Kidd’s advice in the preface to this book, and I found it rewarding:

“Whether your relationship to the Christian religion is deep, shallow, past, present, or nil, the way you read this book matters. If you do so while loving the questions, the book will plunge you into the freedom of unknowing.” I “tried to love the questions” that it raised. I was not disappointed, I have a lot more questions.

This book makes me want to explore these books:

Photo by unknown maister – http://www.lost-history.com/images/, Domini públic, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15969601

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The TempleBlog started as my personal blog in October of 2006 with my first post: John Stott – it was a listing of John Stott quotes.

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