Ancient Christian Origins: A Heterogeneous History

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The question of the origins of ancient Christianity has puzzled believers and skeptics alike. For the first, the history of Christianity is the anchor point for claims of authenticity. For the second, a search for origins opens religious traditions to questions about their contingency and sui generis status. So the perspectives most often speak past each other, both sides internalizing their structure of authority and creating logics of practice to sustain themselves.

In this week’s episode, the RSP’s Sidney Castillo talks with Professor William Arnal of the University of Regina about his research on ancient Christian origins. First, Prof. Arnal uses the perspective of Religious Studies to interrogate the question of origins. He points out how this field differs from theology and how it attempts to demystify religious phenomena. This bracketing of the miraculous and supernatural is of special relevance today, since many scholars (certainly in the past and some still even today) have regarded Christianity as sui generis either in kind, origin, or truth.

The second part of the conversation is directed towards the discussion of the Gospel of Thomas and the Q, two important New Testament sources that, through Arnal’s sharp contextualization, help reveal the diverse social contexts of early communities that saw themselves as followers of Jesus. Prof. Arnal argues that one of the main causes for the emergence of these early communities and their discourses related to salvation and denial of this world come was because they faced great social change. From the expansion of the Roman Empire in the 1st century to the 2nd century, we see greater and more deliberate use of “Christian” identities alongside growing traditions and practices.

Arnal concludes that we can “put to bed” the historical Jesus once and for all, as it is less valuable for scholars to debate the accuracy or authenticity of our sources as many scholars have done. We should, rather, find what insights are available to us to show how the people of the time related to the discourse of a folk hero. What agency was gained by becoming a Christian in this era? What social and economic privileges might be gained or lost? Reconfiguring our approach to early Christianity shifts our focus on this era towards religious studies and the tools we have to study social phenomenon and away from the desire to use historicity or authenticity as a cover for older understandings of the purpose of our field’s efforts.

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