The first century church and its varied meeting places

I was delighted to come across, and have enjoyed reading Edward Adams’ The Earliest Christian Meeting Places (London: Bloomsbury 2013). Mind you, I came to it predisposed to like it. Back in the 90s, when I was labouring on my M.Phil I concluded a discussion of the list of names in Romans 16 saying:

The proportion of houses to apartments in Rome was lower than in the rest of the Mediterranean world, and villas tended to be the preserve of the very wealthy, or the aristocracy. It is unlikely that there were many domestic meeting places in Rome that could have accommodated a large gathering. We may need to consider the possibility that these groups met in some kind of public premises.

There was very little discussion in the literature on which I could call to support my argument. While I think I made a strong enough case to justify the presumption (treating Prisca and Aquila’s house as an exception) I would have liked a stronger external undergirding.

Adams’ book now provides exactly what I would have liked at the time. He offers a thorough argument in two parts to overthrow the consensus that the earliest Christians met almost exclusively in houses. (He refers to this for convenience as the AEH hypothesis, and so shall I.) It is important to note that this is not a refutation of the view that the earliest Christians did sometimes, perhaps often, meet in houses; it is an argument that they also met in a variety of other situations.

The first, and longer, part of the book offers a re-examination of the biblical and extra biblical evidence for the earliest Christian meetings. He looks at the letters (ch 1) and the gospels and Acts (ch 2) before exploring some of the key literature of the second and their centuries (chapter 3). He largely stays in the pre-Constantinian church, but also looks back from some of the later buildings to their possible pre-history when he moves into the archaeological evidence (ch 4). Finally in this section he explores some possible comparisons of meeting places for associations, schools and synagogues (ch 5). He has little difficulty in showing how often the house meeting is an assumption read into (especially) the evidence rather than a conclusion read out of it.

In the second part, he explores the varied possibilities of meeting places in the ancient world. He looks at retail and industrial spaces (ch 6), the space provided commercially for leisure and hospitality (ch 7), and finally outdoor space, including burial spaces and funerary picnics (ch 8). Here he shows that the varied spaces which were possible for and available to early Christian meetings were much wider than the home.

Establishing the possibility, of course, is not the same as establishing what was probable. My own understanding of the diverse economic and social life of the earliest churches comfortably accommodates a variety of meeting space from home to rented (indoor or outdoor) triclinium, and with room for other spaces in-between. I find Adams provides a very well-argued case for seeing that kind of variety in preference to a simple house church model as the most realistic scenario, and I thank him for it.

On mistaking drivel for wisdom

Today’s Church Times (subscribers only) contains an excerpt puffing one of their own Canterbury Press authors and 2014 Greenbelt speaker Sara Miles.

There’s some interesting stuff in what she says, and I’m not dismissing the rest of her output out of hand, but what jumped off the page at me was this piece of bollocks:

“We could use copal for incense, and cense the four corners of the plaza at the beginning of the service,” I suggested. Copal, the yellowish resin used by Aztecs to bless the four directions of the world, still fills Mexican Roman Catholic churches with the smell of prayers more ancient than Jesus; it marks the opening of a sacred liturgy in both traditions.”

One obvious objection is that the Christian tradition grew within, and in reaction to, cultures that celebrated a pantheon of deities, and that any simple and uncritical appropriation of other polytheistic cultures is hardly congruous. When that culture is dead (even allowing for post-colonial guilt at having killed it off), then it’s even more incongruous.

Being attracted by the ancient-ness of prayers is not in itself any thing other than romanticism, without reflection on their content. I have no objection to either incense or mythologising the planet or universe as having four corners, even if it has none. But I do wonder at claiming spiritual value simply by romantic attachment to the rituals of a culture that practiced human sacrifice, as though being an “indigenous people” (a tricky concept anyway) somehow made everything all right.

And finally, I come to the elephant in the room – “prayers more ancient than Jesus”. That would be the Aztec civilisation which flourished in the first half of the second millennium, twice as long after Jesus as we are after the Aztecs. Oops!

Never mind, what’s an inconvenient fact amongst seekers after wisdom.

There are times, quite honestly, when I think Dickie Dawkins has a point.

Ringing the changes

It’s odd how inhibiting I’ve found being an employee. Not least because I’ve been reminded to be very careful that anything I post must be clearly understood to be own views.

The jolly days of being an office holder, unable to be directed by a manager, and feeling more-or-less free to say what I wanted, are now endangered, albeit perhaps more in my mind than in reality. No doubt I will grow accustomed to where the new boundaries lie. After all, there are not a few opinionated diocesan employees out there. I might yet become opinionated again.

All of which is a long way round to saying that I shall be annoying the archdruid. Not by singing Lord of the Dance, although I once went to the same church as Sydney Carter. (Mind you, all he wanted by that late stage of his life was said early morning BCP Holy Communion, with none of your new-fangled tea-lights and corn-dollies.)

No, but by changing my address again. I have decided that I shall feel less inhibited and my blogging shall be more obviously my own – an ill-favoured thing, sir,  but mine own – if I use my name in the site title.

I hope to use August’s slack season to get going with the change, and be ready to return to a more frequent and regular blog movement in the late summer and early autumn.

But in the meantime, let us ponder the strange slackness of August. Why does a church with fewer school age children and younger families than it has ever had, pay ever greater obeisance to rhythms of the school term and holiday?

Rationalists get it seriously (and smugly) wrong

(Corrected post attribution 19/6/14, sorry permalink has to stay wrong)

I was surprised and a little disappointed to see this post from the British Humanists Rationalist Association in which, it seems to me, their prejudice prevents any kind of serious reflection.

I left this comment:

As a Christian, I find this comment a little strange, since to me it would be verging on the offensive to identify my faith with my nationality. I would not want to insult either fellow citizens of other faiths and none, nor fellow Christians of other nationalities, by pretending to any kind of intrinsic identity between the two.

I was disturbed by the 24% figure because it seemed to me to hint at an uncomfortably large number of people (whose religious practice is unknown) for whom professing ethnic adherence to “Christianity” has become the last acceptable way of expressing racism. I don’t see that as either Christian or patriotic.

Your post seems to me a bland and smugly self-congratulatory comment on a phenomenon that is more seriously worrying than the way you treat it.

Religion in the media

Nick Baines reports changes afoot in the world of reporting religion. It’s up at the BBC and down at the Times, it would seem. The former have appointed a new religion correspondent, the latter (says the bishop) is ceasing to have one.

He also goes on to note that a charity he chairs, the Sandford St Martin Trust is changing:

During the last year we have conducted a detailed strategy review and clarified that we wish not only to ‘promote excellence in religious broadcasting’, but also ‘to advocate for’ it.

I don’t wish to deny or devalue the role of broadcasting which explores how people and communities have lived and do live out their lives drawing on a traditioned wisdom and current practices of faith in God. But I do find myself wondering whether that term “religious broadcasting” is part of the problem.

What I would like to see is the promotion of excellently drawn religiously-shaped characters across the range of genre plot-lines. Or faith-informed perspectives being treated as significant contributions to the complexities of political, social, and ethical issues.

What, in brief, I would like is the normalisation of faith in the media, and not simply high quality productions to fill up the quota for some religious silo.

Tom Hollander’s vicar may have got a lot of publicity, but actually I’m more cheered to hear that Arthur Darvill’s vicar will return for series 2 of Broadchurch. Possible suspect in the first version, his vicar struggling with the immensity of what hit the town was suitably complex and relatively normal. Not hero, nor idiot, nor villain, but an integral part of the tapestry of the story. That normalisation within drama (as elsewhere) is something we need to see more.

A short-haired Saviour?

I’m sure there must be some short-haired images of Jesus around somewhere, but I can’t really think of any. Mostly he wears his hair long in picture Bibles, artwork and media representations. Indeed, long hair seems to be one of the most unifying features across all the many diverse Jesus images his followers and non-followers alike construct.

Yet it would seem to be the clearest implication of what is perhaps St Paul’s most bizarre argument (and one I suspect he can feel is getting away from him) that Jesus had short hair.

Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is to his dishonour, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? (1 Cor 11:14-15a)

For Paul, a man’s short hair is so much the cultural norm that he sees it as nature (φύσις), despite the fact that it is obviously achieved by keeping natural growth in cultural check! For such a universal norm to be in place in Paul’s world, it makes it highly unlikely Jesus was some kind of Galilean exception.

Whether Paul had met Jesus is something for which there is no evidence one way or the other, but he must certainly have met a great many Palestinian Jews, and therefore they also must be presumed to conform to “nature”.

The one possible exception to this is the growing of hair while under a vow. Luke twice refers to this custom: once in relation to Paul himself (Ac 18:18), and once in relation to four others with whom Paul associates himself (Ac 21:23-24). What we don’t know is how long these vows typically lasted, and therefore how long the hair grew. Nor do we know how much, symbolically, this was a representation of being removed from the world. and therefore not seen as part of “nature”. However, what is being described is clearly temporary.

Despite some odd attempts to link Matthew’s mysteriously unsourced prophecy “He will be called a Nazorean” (Matt 2:23) with a Nazirite vow, there’s rather more evidence of Jesus enjoying the kind of drinking life that would make any such vow even shorter lived than Paul’s. Therefore some kind of semi-permanent Nazirite vow is hardly a plausible way to restore Jesus’ hippy hair-style.

I think the presumption that short hair is natural points to a pervasive cultural norm, which Paul expects to be shared by the Corinthians, both Greek and Jew, the surrounding culture and the other early Christian leaders the Corinthians may prefer to follow.

When such an obviously cultural convention is simply “nature”, it would be highly unlikely that Jesus could be an exception to this, without it drawing comment somewhere in the record. Jesus, we may conclude, had short hair.

What have the Christians ever done for us?

It seems that Mr Cameron has annoyed some people by proclaiming that Britain is a Christian country. Oddly Mr Brown didn’t seem to annoy them half as much when he said it. Can’t think why Dave would upset Polly more than Gordo, can we?

But a group of BHA celebs has written to the Telegraph to point out that Britain is not a Christian country, apart from a rather annoying “narrow constitutional sense”. Indeed, Simon Singh feels so strongly about how peskily annoying a constitution is to modern concepts of civic reality that he seems to have signed the letter twice.

I couldn’t help but imagine something like the following dialogue:

“Britain is not a Christian country.”

“Apart from having a monarch crowned by the Church.”

“OK, Britain is not a Christian country, apart from having a monarch crowned by the Church.”

“And 26 bishops in the house of Lords”

“OK, Britain is not a Christian country, apart from having a monarch crowned by the Church, and 26 bishops in the house of Lords.”

“And beginning every day in Parliament with prayers.”

“OK, Britain is not a Christian country, apart from having a monarch crowned by the Church, and 26 bishops in the house of Lords, and beginning every day in Parliament with prayers.”

“And having over 1400 years of history intertwining Christianity, state and people, to make us what we are today.”

“OK, Britain is not a Christian country, apart from having a monarch crowned by the Church, and 26 bishops in the house of Lords, and beginning every day in Parliament with prayers, and having over 1400 years of history intertwining Christianity, state and people, to make us what we are today.”

“And having over 50% of the population identifying themselves as Christian in the last census.”

“OK, Britain is not a Christian country, apart from having a monarch crowned by the Church, and 26 bishops in the house of Lords, and beginning every day in Parliament with prayers, and having over 1400 years of history intertwining Christianity, state and people, to make us what we are today, and having over 50% of the population identifying themselves as Christian in the last census.”

“OK, Britain is not a Christian country apart from … look this is getting a bit silly.”

“And also with you.”

In fact I think there’s room for a considerable debate about how we consciously respond to the ways our culture has transformed and is transforming, and in what ways “Christian country” language works or doesn’t work. By and large, Christian is a problematic adjective. But there is something so gloriously silly in that “not Christian apart from constitutionally and legally” argument of the letter, that It doesn’t seem a very useful place to start a serious conversation.

There is, in short, such a blind and outmodedly modernist faith in “the necessary truths of reason” that the letter writers seem to feel that “the accidental truths of history” can be entirely ignored.

Creation not debt repayment: John and the Cross

One of the inevitabilties of Holy Week and Easter, it seems, is a sermon, meditation or blog post on the Greek of Jesus final word from the cross in John’s gospel: “It is finished.” (No links: I’m not getting at any one specific person or instance) And nothing wrong with that; after all, when would be a more appropriate time?

But I do find myself bristling at the easy assumption that in this saying Jesus himself gives us the final interpretation of his sacrifice as a penal substitutionary atonement. “Tetelestai”, the preacher says (rolling the word round his tongue and emphasising the apparent veracity of the interpretation with a rare excursion into Greek) Jesus said: “Paid in full.” and from that he (it usually is a he!) segues into the whole penal substitution thing.

I shall lay to one side any questioning of the historical naïveté which assumes John is simply recording what happened. I shan’t even comment on the obvious problem that John’s story is in Greek, and yet it is highly unlikely even on the most historicist reading of the gospel that a first century Palestinian Jew made his dying declaration in a foreign language, and with our preacher’s modern Erasmian pronunciation to boot.

No. I shall content myself with arguing that this was not what John intended as the primary meaning of his text. I grant you that John often seems deliberately to have opened his text to multiple meanings and plural readings, and it is not impossible that his choice of words does carry the added ambiguity of payment. But I think there are cogent reasons for saying his primary meaning is different.

First, it has to be said that the attestation of “tetelestai” – τετέλεσται as a word prefixing receipts referred to by Moulton and Milligan’s classic lexicon is largely 2nd century (and Egyptian).But that simply urges caution.

Next comes John’s language of sin. He consistently, and without variation of style, uses the language of hamartia (ἁμαρτία) / hamartanō (ἁμαρτάνω) / hamartōlos (ἁμαρτωλός). This is the metaphor for “missing the mark”, or erring. The language of debt is missing as a metaphor for sin in John.

But then there is a more positive, but not exact pointer. Although John only uses the verb “to finish – τελέω” at the cross, he does make use elsewhere in the gospel of the very closely related verb “to complete – τελειόω” here and elsewhere.

Here, it is “that the scripture might be completed” that Jesus says “It is finished.” (19:28,30). Elsewhere in the gospel John appears to use the word complete much as the word finish. So:

  • My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete (τελειώσω) his work. (4:34)
  • The works that the Father has given me to complete (τελειώσω), the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. (5:36)
  • I glorified you on earth by finishing (τελειώσας) the work that you gave me to do. (17:4)

In this context the second of those is particularly interesting. The context is the debate about Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. As part of the debate which follows, Jesus justifies working on the sabbath (including this work of healing) as follows: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” God has not yet reached his sabbath rest, the end of his work, and so Jesus sees no need to keep it.

If we place that understanding into the narrative of the gospel, then Jesus says “It is finished” to complete the scripture, at the end of Friday afternoon. Jesus rests in the tomb on the seventh day having finished his and the Father’s work, and then on the first day of the week, while it is still dark … and we’re back, more allusively to that “In the beginning …” by which John signalled all along he was telling the story of creation in which what came to being in Jesus was life, and the light of all people, the light that shines in the darkness.

The language, and the narrative logic, seem to me to work together to suggest that what is finished on the cross, as far as John is concerned, is first and foremost the work of (new) creation. I wouldn’t care to rule out other meanings entirely, but I think that any interpretation which makes debt primary is listening more to a particular tradition than the text John wrote.

Historical Jesus criteria and the words from the Cross

I started this train of thought while keeping my lips tight shut as many colleagues (with a theologically misplaced enthusiasm) were singing Stuart Townend’s lines “the Father turns his face away / as wounds which mar the Chosen One
 / bring many sons to glory”. The power of a good tune to make people sing things (i hope) they’d never say is quite astonishing.

But I went from pondering that and what biblical texts it could possibly have in mind, to the way in which (it seems to me) there’s a general privileging of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as the most important and (as I think they are implicitly portrayed) the most historically plausible of the words from the cross.

The theological privileging owes a great deal to Moltmann, and has at least these drivers: the human Jesus is more contemporary than the divine Christ, the problem of theodicy is more pressing than any theology of salvation, and divine impassibility has become part of a presumed Greek contamination of a supposedly “biblical” and Hebrew gospel. (The dismissal of impassibility is one of the key areas this outmoded and ahistorical contrast lives on.)

The historical privileging is no doubt related because it is so congenial to the theological account. However, and this is where I finally get to my point, it seems to me that this is one of those cases where the traditional criteria for the historical Jesus quest live on. It is plausible enough in context that a first-century Jew should quote a psalm, and sufficiently embarrassing on the lips of Jesus that the early church would not have invented it (but not embarrassing, it would seem to Mark or Matthew!). Indeed, Luke and John both get rid of it, and if it has left its mark anywhere else in the New Testament, it might be in the alternative (and in my view correct) reading of Hebrews 2:9, “apart from God – χωρὶς θεοῦ” which scribal orthodoxy (and embarrassment?) has made “by the grace of God ῏χἀριτι θεοῦ”.

On the other hand, in Luke’s gospel, it is just as possible that a pious Jewish martyr, not least one who seems to have expected if not embraced his death, could just as plausibly pray what became a model for many Christians: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Psalm 31:5)

Yes, it is congenial to Luke’s theology as far as most people read him, and is echoed in the story of Stephen, and is judged more acceptable for most modern reconstructions of the early church. On the other hand, Mark’s solitary and ambiguous cry is highly congenial to his gospel, and to his misunderstood Jesus being a lonely hero at very turn. Jesus’ cry in Mark is no less of a pattern with the author’s theological and literary concerns than that of his Lukan counterpart.

And so I ask: is there any good historical ground for the theological privileging of Mark’s solitary word from the cross over those narrated in Luke and John? Or is it just another case of a misapplication of dubious criteria from a past age of questing?

The Nigel Evans case: media hysteria and not-guilty verdicts

I have no wish to pour any cold water on Nigel Evans’ relief and delight at his acquittal today. It must have been awful for him, as an innocent man to go through the ordeal of such a public trial on such personal matters.

However, I think we should all be a little bit worried at another example of what looks a bit like a trend following high profile verdicts of “not guilty”. Today, as in the recent cases of Andrew Lancel, Michael Le Vell and William Roache (what is it about the law and Corrie?) there are people queuing up to ask why the charges were brought in the first place.

So, here’s former shadow Home Secretary (who might be expected to know something about the system!) David Davis:

This case has highlighted serious concerns over how the police and the Crown Prosecution Service bring sexual offence cases to court.
In particular we must now review the process whereby the police and the Crown Prosecution Service put together a large number of lesser, subsidiary cases in order to reinforce one serious case when prosecuting sexual offences.
It is clear from the way that this case proceeded that there is a risk of a serious injustice being done to an innocent man, and I would call on the attorney general to urgently review this issue.

They may well be questions to be asked which could I think, pretty broadly come under the heading of “The Savile Effect”.

It appears that once you’re dead, you’re automatically guilty of every allegation, but if you’re still alive questions must be asked about why police think a pattern of serious allegations is sufficient evidence to bring a case to court.

But surely the point is that courts, and juries, exist to test the strength of the case. It is not for the CPS or the police to settle questions of “reasonable doubt”.

There could be little more damaging for our court system than for the public generally to believe that the CPS and police only brought cases against guilty people. Every time it turns out that a case has been brought against an innocent man or woman, it is a sign that the system is robust enough not to collude in either a police state, or a salacious, ravening and hysterical media.

Yes, there are questions to be asked. But they are as much about media freedom and restriction, and about the post-Yewtree culture of hysteria around sexual allegations as they are about anything else.

But the last thing we want is politicians colluding with the media in reinforcing any expectation that only the guilty will ever be charged. That kind of “no smoke without fire” attitude to the courts is the surest way to guarantee future miscarriages of justice.

Today, above all, is a sign that the jury system remains our best safeguard against prosecutorial zeal and trial by media. Nigel Evans has won today, but so has society.

ventures in christian humanism

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