Bremmer on Early Christianity

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(Larry Hurtado):  Jan Bremmer retired from his chair in Religious Studies, University of Groningen (Netherlands) in January 2010.  One of the commendable practices of that university is that retiring holders of professorial chairs give a “valedictory lecture” (just as it is common in European universities to give an “inaugural lecture” when installed in a chair).  Bremmer’s valedictory lecture has been published:  The Rise of Christianity through the Eyes of Gibbon, Harnack and Rodney Stark (Groningen:  Barkhuis, 2010).  It is an interesting discussion of three major figures who have focused on the factors in the growth of Christianity in the first centuries.  Because of Bremmer’s uncommon breadth and depth of acquaintance with primary sources and with scholarship on them, I was particularly struck by a couple of his observations.

” . . . everything we know seems to point to Christianity being a movement connected and maintained by the written word, in other words, being a textual community.  This was an important diffference from Graeco-Roman religion and cults like those of Isis, Mithras or Cybele.  Nowhere do we see that their followers felt connected with ‘fellow believers’ in other places in the Roman Empire.  Even though we can look at early Christianity as a collection of local communities, one of its strengths must have been the feeling of an empire-wide community sustained by epistolary and other contacts.” (p. 41)

” . . . as inscriptions and votive reliefs show, in Greco-Roman religion, especially in the East, the distance between deity and worshipper was steadily increasing.  For the early Christians, in contrast, the love of God must have been especially important.  . . . . There is nothing comparable in Greco-Roman religion to this close tie between believer and divinity.” (pp. 71-72).

I will underscore this by noting that I’ve been unable to find in “pagan” evidence references to the gods loving humans (and I omit the amorous adventures of Zeus with human women!).  By contrast, references to the biblical deity acting out of love for humans are ubiquitous in the NT.

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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. ‘everything we know seems to point to Christianity being a movement connected and maintained by the written word, in other words, being a textual community.’

    What happened to oral traditions?

  2. How early did it happen that the oral traditions disappeared, so that Christianity was not a movement connected and maintained by the spoken word?

    Were the oral traditions the ‘milk’ that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians , that Paul gave until they were ready for the ‘meat’?

    ‘everything we know seems to point to Christianity being a movement connected and maintained by the written word, in other words, being a textual community. This was an important diffference from Graeco-Roman religion and cults like those of Isis, Mithras or Cybele.’

    Did the ‘oral traditions’ of those religions not disappear, unlike in Christianity? Or were they also written down? How did people find out about Mithras, if those religions were not connected by the written word? Was it through word of mouth?

    • A LOT of early Christian oral tradition WAS written down. It is commonly accepted among scholars that the Gospels derive heavily from a large body of Jesus-tradition, from which the authors selected, and then ordered to form the continuous-narrative genre that is the Gospels. Likewise, we have echoes of oral tradition in Paul’s letters (e.g., 1 Cor 15:1-7).
      The body of such traditions was large, and some of it was recorded in other texts, such as Justin, Ignatius, etc.
      Obviously, whatever wasn’t recorded or referred to by some writer was lost.
      I think most commentators take the “milk” to which Paul refers as the elementary/introductory teachings of the faith.
      Our knowledge of a lot of Roman religion is very limited, largely because (1) there wasn’t the same high production of texts as there was in Christianity, and (2) they simply didn’t consist so much in teachings, ideas, etc., but were mainly to do with ritual practices (which is what “religion” was more typically in the ancient world). Christianity was much, much more “wordy”, and didn’t have some of the typical trappings of “religion”: No altar, no sacrifice, no shrines, priests, etc. So, some pagan observers complained that it wasn’t really a religion, that Christians were “atheists”, and that they were really a secretive quasi-philosophical society.
      Oh, and also, religious movements such as “Mithraism” (NB: our term, not one used by adherents of the time) weren’t typically trans-local groups. I.e., you didn’t think of yourself as joining some trans-local movement, but simply a local group of chums. Christians, however, more typically thought of themselves as part of a new world-wide movement.

  3. Professor Hurtado,

    Is it possible that Jesus’ love for humanity represents the ascription of an activity to Jesus that is typically reserved for YHWH? Are other exalted figures, who were thought to have once dwelt on the earth (e.g. Moses or Enoch), ever said to love humanity?

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