Dissertation Synopsis

After about twelve months of intensely researching, writing, and editing, the readers’ draft of my dissertation went out to my committee last week. In an attempt to explain the prolonged silence here, I’ll post up the primary approach the project and then make a few points. My goal is to use much of this research and discussion to continue promoting dialogue here as well as apt fodder for scholarly articles and other works.

The dissertation’s initial title is The Quest for the Historical Church: The Development and Dismissal of Free Church Ecclesiology From Pentecost Through the Second Century.

dissertationMy goal in working on this area is to discuss, via a multi-disciplinary approach, the nature of autonomy of the earliest Christian communities in the first two centuries. As I have been working through some discussions, as well as being part of a larger professional network in my church work, there appears to be a growing gap of literature that accurately engages the realities of the church in this period and also attempts to understand the influences on its hierarchical structure and leadership composition. Since I am a thorough-going Baptist in my ecclesiology, I am keenly interested in whether the earliest churches reflected any kind of early episcopal structures or were they congregational.

My thesis surrounded several key questions: If the apostolic intention was to create one, uniform system of ecclesiology, what happened to that system in light of the rise of the Bishop of Rome? Was this the intended system of the Apostles, or is another ecclesiological form intended? How are we to understand the diversity of forms and offices within the New Testament documents? How did the heretical teachers and false prophets within early Christianity influence the development of authority in the early Church and churches? Is a monarchial episcopacy the ecclesiological form sought by the Apostles?

Ultimately, my research has led to a number of points, not the least of which is abandonment of these kinds of categories for understanding how the churches functioned in this period. One of the primary points of the dissertation was initially evaluating the landscape of New Testament ecclesiology and demonstrating how four distinct ecclesiologies emerge among the earliest Christian communities. These four are: Pauline, Lucan, Johannine, and Matthean. Now, there are likely more sub-ecclesiologies present, and perhaps even some that aren’t mentioned in the documents of the first Christians. However, by establishing this pluriformity of ecclesial forms we start off by acknowledging that there was quite a bit of diversity at the outset of the earliest Christian communities.

Along these lines, I also evaluated apostolic authority, since that is often suggested to be one of the ways that episcopal systems mimic their use of autocracy. Through this step the conclusion is that apostolic authority is rather limited and, particularly in the Pauline usage, often given deference to the freedom of the individual. Of course external influences seem to have impacted early Christianity, just as they do today, and as it relates to the concepts of autonomy and federation between churches Second Temple Judaism and Greco-Roman voluntary associations were also considered.

long bookThe final step was evaluating the documents of the Apostolic Fathers, most specific the Didache1 Clement, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, along with other works (Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, etc.), for their ecclesiological content. Then the works of the Second Century Apologists were also surveyed, though Ireneaus and Clement of Alexandria were the primary writers to be evaluated.

In the end, I think there is a quite a good case to be made for establishing autonomy, that is the independence of the local Christian communities, as the initial nature of ecclesial relationships within early Christianity. These first communities had no means of establishing external hierarchy, no examples of overwhelming compulsion to the influence of an external leader, and do not appear to make much of other communities, even those existing within the same cities. There is some federated cooperation within these communities, but they are, by and large, isolated from each other and any notion of external influence in their structure and operations.

Now that this project is initially submitted I’m dutifully working on reinforcing some argumentation with professorial critiques in mind as well as tightening up the language. There is much to say about all of this, and hopefully in the coming months I’ll be able to work out bits and pieces on this blog.

I’d love to engage with some feedback on the ideas presented, though this is mightily limited from the 302-page dissertation.


Who is More Qualified to Write on Jesus?

At this point I think we can agree any topic related to Jesus causes a firestorm.

This weekend a new controversy has sprung up as it relates to Dr Reza Alsan’s interview on FoxNews about his new book Zelaot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Now I’m not going to comment on his text, however the controversy around his interview has gotten a conversation going. Over at First Things, Matthew J. Franck has put together a post about the challenge of Dr Aslan’s purported credentials. Whether or not Dr Aslan has a PhD which allows him to say he’s a historian is not my point. I generally support the view that to be considered a critical scholar on a subject one needs to have “a terminal degree in the specific field of their inquiry with relevant research and peer reviewed articles published while holding a relevant academic position at an educational institution.”

This definition should enough to begin to answer this question about who is more qualified to write on Jesus. Jesus is popular stuff and if you write a decent book and have the backing of a smoothly operating propaganda machine you should be able to sell some books. Western culture still loves to talk about Jesus.

So, does being a   (insert religious or non-religious moniker)  make one more credible or less credible when it comes to writing on Jesus?

From a position of academic scholarship, so long as someone has a relevant degree and has done quality research to answering a question, however one fills in the blank in the above line doesn’t matter. Academically, a Muslim with a New Testament degree is just as qualified as an evangelical Christian with the same degree to write about Jesus. Now, whether they have done a good job will be determined (not by 24-hour news channels) but by the scholarly community at large.

Scholars submit their work to review (both peer review and review articles) and it should withstand a healthy conversation that is either positive or negative. A writer who isn’t prepared, or willing to do so, isn’t a scholar and isn’t credible.

In our contemporary age, too many of us operate with an approach of suspicion when encountering a sympathetic scholar, or writer, who produces a work about a controversial topic. Surely the convinced Christian has less to offer than the critical atheist when asking historical questions about Jesus. Apparently there is a lack of credibility that comes from being affiliated with the group you’re critically engaging.

Now this might just be a product of our age.

I, for one, welcome Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, Buddhist, atheist, and agnostic inquiries into the picture of the historical Jesus developed by orthodox (small “o”) Christians since the establishment of the post-Apostolic church. Let’s get our cards on the table and have a generous conversation. Let’s use the same historical methodology to evaluate all of our leaders by which we evaluate Jesus. Let’s compare the historical Jesus against the historical Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Siddhartha Gautama, and others.

Now, the larger question for Muslim scholar such as Reza Aslan, does he welcome appropriately credentialed Christian scholars to investigate Mohammed?

It’s easy to write a book about Jesus. Dan Brown stole material from another book and now lives in a very large house after writing a very bad book about Jesus. But he’s not a critical, or any kind of, scholar.

The challenge is writing a good book about Jesus that authentically and critically engages the historical scholarship in a quest (no pun intended) to answer the author’s primary question about Jesus. It’s been done, but only in limited form and usually in a manner that doesn’t interview well on the 24-hour newsfeeds.

Finally, we shouldn’t miss the point that Reza Aslan has provided a critical interaction with the theme of resurrection and how it would have reflected a political and religious reality of the historical Jesus. This seems to be, obviously, completely missed by the interviewer. Now that is an interesting topic. One of the challenges Islam brings to Christianity is a denial of the crucifixion. I believe that is one of the more historically established events in antiquity. If Dr Aslan is offering a new perspective, I’d be willing to hear it.

Of course, we must point out that any scholar going on any of the 24 hour news channels (or Comedy Central) shouldn’t expect to be received with any respect for critical nuance. That’s probably more of a statement about the journalistic torpor of our days than a commentary on the failures of scholarship. Long gone are the days when scholars would be interviewed by learned journalists who probed their insights and helpfully developed the discussion. This FoxNews interview is a blight on our culture and the interviewer misses the entire point. Since Foxnews has a history of failing to critically engage scholars, I simply think they don’t have much to offer in this conversation.

So, Who is More Qualified to Write on Jesus?

First, we must consider the qualifications (academically) of an author. No offense to my Christian brothers and sisters, but if you have a high school diploma with no additional undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate study, you aren’t as qualified to write on Jesus as someone who has those degrees. Also, any of these degrees of diploma mill doesn’t qualify you either.

Second, just because someone is a Christian (including us terrible evangelicals) doesn’t mean our opinion is less suitable than a non-believer. If an evangelical has done the work their voice should be heard.

Third, just because someone isn’t a Christian who has the requisite academic work, doesn’t mean they are more worth hearing by the population at large. Critical inquiry demands peer review. It demands the qualified conversation of specialists who can review and consider the piece.

So finally, let those who choose to write on Jesus be subject to the process of answering the question about their credentials and then let their work stand (or fall) on its own.