What is “Christian Origins”?

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(Larry Hurtado):  As the founding director of CSCO I’ll offer my take on what “Christian Origins” means (at least here), for those who may be wondering what the expression signifies, and how it relates to the more traditional “New Testament Studies” label.

First, “Christian Origins” signifies a strong historical orientation.  We’re trying to pursue historical questions, using historical reasoning, and treating all data and texts, including the NT texts (for the purposes of our investigations) primarily as historical artefacts of, or shedding light on, early Christianity.  This doesn’t represent any sort of anti-theological stance, or a criticism of the Christian regard for the NT as scripture, only a positive statement of the focus that we have for CSCO.

But this historical inquiry can take in a lot:  e.g., early Christian beliefs, structures, organization, social characteristics, religious practices, political stances, perceptions of Christians by others, relationship to the larger religious and cultural environment, gender-questions, early Christian symbols, “visual culture”, material artefacts (including manuscripts), and still more.

Chronologically, what comprises “Christian Origins”?  Well, when I was preparing for my PhD “comps” many years ago, I asked my supervisor (Prof. E.J. Epp) how widely I should prepare for the “comp” exam in NT/Christian Origins (a 6 hr written exam).  He answered that I should basically prepare to answer questions about anything from ca. 200 BCE to ca. 200 CE, including figures, ideas, developments, political, religious, texts, practices, etc.  We’ve agreed here that “NT Studies” chronologically must take in at least the first two centuries CE.  For although all or nearly all the NT texts were composed in the first century CE, they were collected and began clearly to acquire an acknowledged scriptural status across the second century CE.  So, in other words, it isn’t till ca. 200+CE that we begin to see the basic outlines of a “New Testament”, and surely “NT Studies” should take in this larger development.

In CSCO, our scope is even somewhat broader, because we have the benefit of excellent scholars in later centuries.  These include Dr. Sara Parvis (specializing in 4th-5th cents CE), and Honorary Fellows in the persons of Dr. Paul Parvis (special strengths in 2nd cent CE), and Prof. Emeritus Timothy Barnes (a well-known expert in Roman late antiquity and Christianity of this period, whose retirement from the University of Toronto and relocation to Edinburgh has enriched us). This interaction among scholars primarily expert in the NT and experts in cognate areas makes for a stimulating setting in which to study “Christian Origins”.

I contend that, even (perhaps especially) if one is interested in the NT texts in particular, it is highly useful to approach them in the perspective afforded by reading them in historical context.  A somewhat wider chronological horizon than the first century CE actually can enhance one’s perception of NT texts.  For example, the literary properties and emphases of the intra-canonical Gospels become much clearer when one takes account of the many other “Jesus books” of the first few centuries.

Likewise, early Christian texts, beliefs and practices are readily illuminated (as any scholar in the field will know) by taking account of the historical environment.  I think, for example, of the considerable benefits received from study of the Qumran texts (“Dead Sea Scrolls”).  This is certainly demanding, but for all of us here also terribly interesting.

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About larryhurtado

I'm a scholar in New Testament and Christian Origins, currently Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology in the University of Edinburgh (since 1996), and previously Professor in the Department of Relgiion, University of Manitoba.

5 responses »

  1. Oh, I sincerely hope that “modern human” people are still capable of reading texts of a few hundred words without collapsing! This *is* after all, a site devoted to disseminating the scholarly study of Christian Origins.

  2. Welcome to the blogosphere! Word of advice: Don’t feed the trolls. Also, be sure to activate comment review. Otherwise, happy blogging!

  3. Great post Larry. Don’t listen to the wounded ego! Most people who will read this blog will want more substantive posts. I agree that you should enable a comments filter to rid the comments of the trolls. I will put a link to your blog and this one my website and blog, http://www.colemanabaker.com.

    welcome!

  4. ‘But this historical inquiry can take in a lot: e.g., early Christian beliefs, structures, organization, social characteristics, religious practices, political stances, perceptions of Christians by others, relationship to the larger religious and cultural environment, gender-questions, early Christian symbols, “visual culture”, material artefacts (including manuscripts), and still more.’

    That is a huge amount of things which go into studying Christian origins.

    Could the life of Jesus be added usefully to that list?

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