It Really is Hard to Reconstruct Aspects of the Biblical Times

Last evening, well early this morning, I was reading James Burtchaell’s From Synagogue to Church and came across his discussion about the challenge of reconstructing the underlying forms or pre-existing offices that would have informed the earliest Christian communities. He points out that there well could be a number of traditional patterns and social attitudes that are simply unrecoverable to present day historians. He then provides this excellent illustration:

Imagine the impossible task of any future scholar trying to reconstruct the internal political history of almost any institution in America in ignorance of Robert’s Rules of Order, the format by which virtually all meetings are conducted. The wardens of a Congregationalist church in Newport, a teamsters union in Chicago, a chapter of the Disabled American Veterans in Dubuque: all of the them run their meetings pretty much the same way, Robert’s way. The book is a traditional item of community organization, entirely familiar to the nation, and for that very reason it is so taken for granted that it is rarely mentioned. By the same token, any familiarity which we can gain with similarly familiar antecedents of the earliest Christians will help us to construe better the way that they were following – because they were the only ways they knew of forming a community. (pg 199)

He goes on to note how the earliest Christians would have certainly looked to their common heritage and cultural milieu, specifically the synagogue.

Now, this really does capture the challenge of reconstructing the picture of the first century environment. After numerous generations of critical historical inquiry the picture is becoming increasingly clear. However, it still is missing pieces and a haze of uncertainty persists.

The underlying cultural forms that helped craft and structure authority in the earliest Christian communities are better known today than one hundred years when Sohm and Harnack (et al) were discussing the nature of charism in these early communities. Leaders in the scholarly communities that have pushed away the heavy stones of history have cleared the path and drawn on our growing knowledge of archeology and ancient understanding. Of course, the path is still clouded.

treaty-westSo to frame the continued challenge we think of the historical scholar in 1,000 years that looks back at the United States of America (or whatever country you might think of) and is attempting to work through a pile of yellowed manuscripts of official documents (since out data architecture long vanished because of its delicate state) from the wide ranging organizations as listed above. Perhaps she even has some official files from Congress. Yet Robert’s Rules does not exist in any written form. Imagine the frustration and limited horizons. If any of us could leap into her time we might be able to explain (once we learned the languages) these things better, yet we know we cannot do this.

This same problem vexes historians and biblical scholars.

We have a good picture of these times of antiquity and, perhaps more than any other people of the turn of the age (from BCE to CE) we understand Christians well. The development of the earliest Christianity wasn’t a static venture, but certainly an organic one that has many warts and scars. Yet here the Church still stands in this day (rather different I suggest) and still proclaims a Gospel so similar to the earliest Christian creed “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

The picture of these earliest believers might not be in full color or complete, but it is there and increasingly made clear through the efforts of legitimate, critical scholarship. For those of us looking to add to that picture, or at least learn how to add, a robust and competent historiography (historical method) is necessary for moving forward. It isn’t something that is easily spoken of in small groups or sermons, but it is absolutely necessary for helping finish the picture to which so many have already contributed. And yet, in 500 years, the painting might be just as unfinished.