What it means to know things about early Christianity

I’ve been reading a lot about the history of early Christianity, and a lot of the theories and ideas that define it. A lot of the scholarship is totally wild, and a lot is pretty sound; some is both, but its all confusing, because these things get mixed together indiscriminately. It motivated me to create a taxonomy of “knowability” for theories about Christ and early Christianity. The taxonomy allowed me to craft a test by which I judge if a theory is worth taking seriously. For me to take a Bible theory seriously, it has to have more evidence than the suspicious theory that Jesus was a hypocrite and demagogue.

First, the taxonomy. It isn’t exactly a scale, and there is room for overlap and grey. It is still loose enough that two people could put the same theory into the pragmatic or reach categories, so this is currently only a personal taxonomy for establishing one’s own sense or the sense of a community that shares one’s assumptions.

  • Universally know: Assert the truth of. The existence of this type of knowing is justified by faith and only faith. The type of knowledge that good Christians hold for the existence of Christ and God.
  • Humanly know: know as well as its possible to know something (that I’m standing on a floor and its not demons). Beyond reasonable doubt. It can be proven wrong. The existence of Pilate, and of Jews and early Christians in the first century A.D. Probably the existence of Paul. Herod killing all those kids on 0 A.D.
  • Functionally know: Whether theory is completely satisfying or not, you can’t imagine an alternative. Not necessarily a failure of imagination; often any competing theory that accounts for the evidence is much more complicated. Existence of the apostles and maybe Paul. The books of the Torah existed around 0 A.D. and people in the Levant often knew someone who had actually read them. They were acquainted with the lore of those books.
  • Pragmatically know: Probably the best theory. Alternative theories could be maintained by a reasonable person, even the same person—there is still reasonable doubt. Every physicist knows that Newton’s billiard ball mechanics is “wrong,” but indistinguishable from the truth in an impressively wide range of problems. Existence of a Yeshua from Nazareth. Existence of Q document.
  • Reach: Theory could of course be true, but no more plausible than its opposite. Still, one may be more accepted than the other for historical reasons. Birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem and then to and fro Egypt—Could as easily have been ad hoc fabrication to satisfy prophecies in Isaiah. I’m putting here everything else that was prophesied by Isaiah, because these are things that people at the time wanted to be true: a Christ will come, he will be killed, resurrected, and seen, virgin birth/immaculate Conception, and he will perform miraculous healings (which have really gone out of fashion in modern Christianity).
  • Fringe: Theory could be true, other reasonable theories are more supported, or better supported. Existence of secret gospels from the first century.
  • Spurious: Fundamentally not knowable except below Pragmatic sense. More specifically, not knowable given current knowledge, and possibly future knowledge. Things prophesied by Isaiah, the existence of secret gospels from the first century. Armageddon happened way back in the first or second century A.D.. Armageddon will happen. Armageddon won’t happen. Mary M. and Jesus were doing it. Mary M. was an Apostle.
  • Wrong (Know not): theory has been falsified. That is, it could always wriggle its way to being true, but there exists current evidence on the subject (itself impressive when it comes to the history of early Christianity), and that evidence speaks against the thing. Infancy gospels were almost certainly not written before 200 or 300AD.

I’ll only warily assert anything into the faith type of knowing, and “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a luxury reserved for very few aspects of Biblical history. In general, I’m wary to assume that I know anything with more certainty than I know that I’ve got two feet on the ground, and even that is fair to call suspect. Going down the ladder, none of the theories I’m willing to work with can really be proven false, so I’m lowering the bar; falsifiability is too strict a standard for ancient history. Even without it, historians can establish things that are worth trying to establish. So how far down should I go?


Now that we’ve got a scale of knowing things about the history of early Christianity, I’m going to be the devil’s advocate and pose a reach/fringe theory that Jesus was a demagogue and a hypocrite. Its purpose is to serve as a criterion for judging other theories, and for establishing the legitimacy (in my eyes) of theories of ancient history. I’ll consider your theory if it is more plausible than the theory that Jesus was merely a human demagogue.

Here is the theory: Demagogues are people who preach a populist message, often to the poor, while themselves living within the means that they criticize.* Demamgogues happen. People want supernatural, and a demagogue can convey that without doing anything impossible. Here is the case that Jesus was living large, using only evidence from the Gospels, the most legitimate accounts of the Life of Christ: getting his hair perfumed, breaking Sabbath by not fasting, the thousands of loaves, the parable for rich people. From this theory it makes sense that he would say he isn’t having wine tomorrow night, and it explains the doting entourages that retrieved him donkey and presented lepers and blind people to him.

This theory is reach/fringe, but it errs on the side of pragmatic. It obviously has lots of problems as a theory, but that’s the point. I think that a more sympathetic read is at least as plausible, but also that a reasonable person could believe all of this.

Whether it is right or wrong is irrelevant. It is at least as true as the New Testament case against (for example) homosexuality *. Things I’m willing to work with: I think Q passes the test, also the existences of Herod and Pilate *, even the existence of Godfearers.

These theories that I’m willing to work with are above the border between reach/fringe and pragmatic. That’s the line I’ve drawn in helping myself know what I think.

2 Responses to “What it means to know things about early Christianity”

What about approaching the text as a means of establishing what the author intended rather than focusing on the protagonist? By focusing on the author’s agenda, the role(s) within the narrative become, at least for the time being, irrelevant, right? So, for example, the prayer of Jesus in John 17, which is the last of the Johannine farewell addresses before the Passion, paints Jesus as a demagogue but doesn’t necessarily mean that he was one. However, an honest examination of the language therein leaves the critic with few alternatives but to conclude that a demagogue is being portrayed. Wouldn’t you say?

Cass added these pithy words on Apr 10 12 at 05:00

Oh that’s neat. It never even occurred to me that a gospel writer/editor could want to paint an explicitly unflattering picture of Jesus. I’m thinking of the criterion of embarrassment: events that would be hard to explain from a hagiographic perspective have more credibility than those that are, for example, consistent with prophecy and painting a prophetic picture.

I’m with you that an author’s agenda tints the lens that we are seeing everything through. I guess I was lumping that in between cultural context and literary form, but I can see that it is its own special category. Of course, it doesn’t buy me much because we don’t know who wrote what when, or how much any of it was edited, or why; it only raises more questions and pushes everything to more specious types of knowing. Thanks for the thoughts.

admin added these pithy words on Apr 10 12 at 16:48