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Early Christian Maps and a Fantasy

A Bible and Beyond Discussion

Monday, June 24, 2024
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With Dr. Jason BeDuhn and guest host Sara Barnacle

Introduction

Dr. Jason BeDuhn surprises us with a challenge to re-think our concepts of early Christian maps. A new idea of how vast the Eastern world of Jesus followers had been puts the Roman church in a whole new light. We have a habit of confining our thinking about early Christianity only in the context of the Roman Empire. The Empire has made our Christian maps rather than the location of those who believed and practiced some form of Christianity. As for the maps, the reality is that some varieties of the Christian movement formed outside of the Roman Empire. Some even evolved outside the world of Greco-Roman culture. The Nicene type of Christianity matched the boundaries of the Roman Empire, but the non-Nicene varieties of Christianity extended way beyond those boundaries. These non-Nicene varieties survived outside the reach of the Catholic-Orthodox power, which was co-terminus with the boundaries of the Empire. Therefore, when the Empire shrunk, so did the Catholic-Orthodox power. BeDuhn will introduce us to the present existence of non-Chalcedonian churches in Armenia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Syrian culture throughout Syria, Iraq, Iran, and India.

Transcript

Sara Barnacle:

Welcome everyone to the June, 2024 textual study on the Bible and Beyond discussions. I am your host this evening. My name is Sarah Barnacle. Shirley Paulson is away for the evening, but I’m happy to introduce our guest speaker, Dr. Jason BeDuhn. Jason has spoken several times on Bible and Beyond podcasts, but it’s wonderful that he is going to be with us tonight where we can talk with him in person. And tonight he’s talking about “Early Christian Maps and a Fantasy,” and he’s going to point out our habit of thinking about early Christianity only in the context of the boundaries of the Roman Empire. But the real maps of Christian location were far greater than the boundaries of the Roman Empire, and that alone has lots of implications for us to talk about. Well, thanks so much for coming to talk to us tonight, Jason. So welcome Jason. We’re so pleased to have you with us tonight.

Jason BeDuhn:

Thank you, Sara. My pleasure to be here.

Sara Barnacle:

Is there anything you’d like to say to us before I start firing you with some of Shirley’s good questions?

Jason BeDuhn:

Let’s dive right in.

Sara Barnacle:

Okay, number one, this is a little intro here before we get to the actual question itself. So here we go. Most of us probably grew up learning that Paul traveled around the northern and western Mediterranean area and started Christianity in those areas. So the map of early Christianity in our minds was shaped pretty much by Paul’s travels, but you have drawn a completely different map of Christianity that’s rather stunning. What’s especially surprising is the way you show maps, not just about the geography of the area, but about the influences and powers associated with different groups of followers. Could you start us off by showing us the connection between Paul’s travels and the Roman Empire to get our timelines and geography straight? We should know that Paul was traveling around the middle part of the first century before Christianity was actually a thing. So the question is, what was the relationship between the Roman Empire and Paul’s traveling which spread Jesus’s teachings?

Jason BeDuhn:

Alright, I’m going to share my screen so that we can have something to look at while I explain this a little bit. And some of this will be certainly familiar to many of you. This is a map of roughly where the Roman Empire was at the time of Paul. It was a relatively new entity. It had grown up in just a couple of generations to these dimensions. And while there are a number of ways in which this was the world of the Roman Empire, even the formation of Christianity, the one we want to focus on tonight has to do with the practicalities of the spread of Christianity. The Roman Empire created a kind of borderless area of trade and travel that made it much more possible for people to move around more easily, more quickly with less risk to themselves. And that was a good thing for the spread of Christianity.

What went hand in hand with that was urbanization because the Roman Empire created a great deal of trade. It generated prosperity and it generated job opportunity. And so a lot of people moved from the countryside into the cities, which meant that people were coming into contact with people different from themselves in the urban environment. And that facilitated the exchange of ideas and lifestyles and things like that, as urban areas always do. And that also then facilitated the growth of Christianity in these new areas. Now, I’m sure you’ve all seen a map like this either printed in a Bible or in some other setting. This is the standard map of Paul’s journeys and it’s kind of cobbled together from things Paul says in his letters and from the Book of Acts. And it’s a bit artificial. It’s come in for a lot of criticism from more recent scholarship, but this is a familiar thing to us.

And we’re so used to this map being printed as the standard kind of, “this is early Christianity,” “this is how it spread,” that we don’t notice a couple peculiar things about it. So first of all, this map is used to represent the spread of Christianity when in fact it’s just Paul’s missions. And we know from Paul and other early Christian writings that of course there were other missions. Paul himself had a distinct mission from other early apostles and they were certainly going other places besides the places that Paul went. So that’s an oddity that this map usually stands in as representation of the spread of early Christianity when it’s just a very narrow slice of the story having to do with Paul. Now, Paul’s call to missionize or spread the message of Jesus to non-Jews meant that this map shows him moving into areas where there are not a lot of Jews.

And so that should remind us that some of the other apostles were deliberately going to places where there were Jewish populations because that was the very natural step for them to take to spread the message of Jesus as Messiah, which after all is a Jewish concept. So we’d want to look at other places they might go, where they might find Jewish populations as opposed to where Paul was focused on, going to non-Jewish populations. And then when we look at a map like this, we can see that quite clearly. Then there are some obvious places missing such as, where are the arrows going south? Where are the arrows going to Alexandria and to Sinai and other areas in North Africa? Certainly there were Christian movements spreading to those areas as well. So what we’ve got to do then is to pull ourselves away from Paul a little bit and think about missions to other Jews.

And these would’ve been the largest concentrations of Jews at the time of Paul in the subsequent couple of generations. So we have the Antioch area there where Turkey meets Syria. We have, of course, Jews in Judea and Galilee. We have a large Jewish population in Egypt. And perhaps the largest Jewish population was actually in Babylonia, which was outside the Roman Empire. And so that gets us started with where we’re going tonight to think about the spread of Christianity beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Now where are the stories? Where are the maps? Where are the arrows to these other areas? That’s part of the challenge of doing the history of early Christianity. For some of these groups, Jewish populations inside the Roman Empire, they would have received people bringing the message of Jesus to them, but they went through subsequent traumas that broke up the Jewish communities in those areas. And along with that, broke up the early Christian missions there. That includes of course, Judea and Galilee. It also includes Egypt where a rebellion of the Jews of Egypt around 115 to 117 CE led to the genocide of the Jews of Egypt. So any sort of beginnings of Christianity or Jesus followers among those Jews would’ve been wiped out with those Jews and had to be reintroduced to Egypt later. And then for those Jewish communities outside the Roman Empire, they simply have been largely omitted from the story that, as Sarah commented, has been centered around the Roman Empire.

Sara Barnacle:

Shirley’s next question was, is, “Then much later, when the Roman Empire legalized Jesus followers and even made “Christianity” the official Roman religion, what difference do you think this had on the map?” And she’s got that in quotes of Christianity.

Jason BeDuhn:

Yeah, well, this is where of course the Roman Empire becomes the center of the story because once you have the Roman government favoring Christianity, that’s going to facilitate the growth of the Christian movement within this favored realm where they actually have government sponsorship. And so that’s a good thing for the Christian movement in terms of its rapid growth under that sponsorship, under that support, when Christians no longer have to be underground, when they don’t have to be afraid of the government, and they can operate openly. That we see a rapid growth of Christianity in the fourth century under those favorable conditions. But there are consequences. With every advantage that comes, there comes potential disadvantages, and one of those is exactly the identification of Christianity with the Roman Empire. And so how other nations and other governments relate to the Roman Empire is going to shape how those other countries view Christians and how they treat Christians.

So if they’re on good terms of the Roman Empire, if they’re at peace with the Roman Empire, they’re going to treat Christians in their midst well. But if they’re in conflict with the Roman Empire, if they see the Roman Empire as an enemy and they identify Christians with the Roman empire, then that means that they’re going to look at Christians in their midst with some suspicion. And we all can think of historical examples of that when a country’s in conflict with another country, representatives of that other country are suspect with the country they’re in conflict with. So that is going to create constantly shifting conditions for Christians outside the Roman Empire. And just one example that we want to spend a little time on, I think this evening, the Church of the East, which forms outside the Roman Empire in the Near East under Iranian political power. It actually shaped some of its ideology to deliberately disassociate itself from Christians inside the Roman Empire in order to clearly signal to their overlords that they are not a fifth column, they are not representatives of the enemy, that they are native to the Iranian territory and want to spread and follow Christianity at peace with the Iranian state.

And so that’s part of this effect of the Roman Empire adopting Christianity and the consequences it’s going to have for Christians outside. The Roman Empire also sponsors missions from the Roman Empire into surrounding territories. And that then is going to also shape the forms of Christianity that get disseminated and how they fare in those other lands under that sponsorship.

Sara Barnacle:

Shirley, next question. I think you’ve really begun answering that, but maybe you could give us a few more specifics. She says, so then you show how there were other people who followed Jesus, but they weren’t a part of the Roman Empire or even involved in Greco-Roman culture. And she says, who are you talking about? So you’ve talked about people of the Church of the East. Do you want to specify maybe others?

Jason BeDuhn:

Yeah, so we can start already with the Book of Acts, which is probably written in the early to mid-second century. And in telling the story of early Christianity, it refers to Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem for Shavuot or Pentecost, and they come from these lands outside the Roman Empire, right? People from Parthia, Elam and Mesopotamia. And so this is that eastern concentration of Jews in Babylonia that I referred to previously. This is an area of Jewish settlement by most estimates, a million+ Jews in this area. In other words, more Jews than were in Judea and Galilee are living in Babylonia at this time. And so the author of the Book of Acts already recognizes this larger diaspora Jewish community, not just within the Roman Empire but outside the Roman Empire and how easy it was for them to cross this border back and forth and have contact with what’s going on in Jewish communities in the Roman Empire. And so that means that Christianity is going to spread East as outside the Roman Empire as well as West into the Roman Empire.

And so that begins to point to one of these other directions that the mission is going to take. And when both Jews and non-Jews living in this area begin to form and organize a Christian church, it’s going to be under very different conditions than are in the Roman Empire. Now, just to expand from this sort of first step east to where the most obvious place to go for people spreading the early Jesus mission would be, we can look at a much broader map. Yeah, a lot of trade routes, a lot of movement, and even though I talked about the Roman Empire creating within its borders, much more easy facilitation of travel and trade, political borders in the ancient world were not that solid. There certainly was nothing like what we hear sometimes these days about building a wall along the border. The Romans never did such a thing.

And so if you traveled on the official roads, you might have to pay some extra duties and taxes, but there were lots of unofficial roads you could travel to avoid that. There certainly was a lot of movement, not just across the border from the Roman Empire. The time of Paul would’ve been the Parthian Empire. Later a different Iranian group takes over and controls this region, but then you see the trade routes continue into Arabia, into South Asia, into Central Asia. And so gradually, not immediately, but gradually, we’re going to have people who identify with as Jesus followers using these routes and using these opportunities perhaps as merchants, as well as missionaries in that sense, moving into these areas and spreading Christianity. The real debate is how rapidly did this happen and how quickly did they find an audience for this message, which was originally primarily for Jews.

Jews were in some of these areas, not all of them. So how rapidly did this spread? And that’s where we get to the discussion about the fantasy versus the reality of how quickly this might’ve been done. So one of the readings, well, I’ll get to the Bardaisan in a second, but we have the fantasy in Matthew that right from the beginning Jesus was saying, go and make disciples of all nations. A lot of historians of early Christianity would question that as part of the original mission. The various Apocryphal Acts beyond the canonical Book of Acts, and there are all these non-canonical books of Acts which repeatedly describe Jesus as sending his apostles to specific places to spread the mission. And then there are various legends and other early texts which describe early missions, moving very quickly outside the Roman Empire into Asia, all of this has to be taken with a very big grain of salt.

These are probably hindsight, anachronistic fantasies about an immediate mission all over the world. And then one of the texts that I provided for the group to look at in advance was an excerpt from Bardaisan of Edessa, the Book of the Laws of the Countries, and Bardaisan who’s writing in the late second century, and he’s in Odessa, which is just inside the Roman borders right near the border, the frontier. He’s imagining Christians in every land he’s ever heard of. And part of his argument is that where you live and the culture you’re brought up in does not determine how you behave or even where you are in to the stars and the planets, astrologically. It does not determine how you behave because Christians who live in lands with deeply entrenched customs and laws and traditions stand apart from those customs and laws and traditions and follow Christian way of life no matter where they live. So he’s making a kind of philosophical, ethical argument, but it includes this fantasy that every place he’s ever heard of in the world is going to have Christians in it. Now, he probably doesn’t have direct information about this, probably a sort of theoretical thing he’s spinning, but it shows this fantasy that Christianity spread far and spread fast.

Here’s where we start to have concrete reality with these individuals and in a site, we start to give the second, third, and fourth centuries specific evidence of people near the frontier or across the Roman frontier who are followers of Jesus. And so these are reliable, historically valid sources on what it looks like in this time. So I mentioned Bardaisan, he’s in the second century. Tatian is someone who reportedly comes from probably across the border in what at that time would’ve been Iranian controlled territory, but Syriac culture, Semitic Syriac culture, which was on both sides of the border, Elchasai another second century figure who was right on the border region and kind of a visionary prophet like figure. And then with the beginning of the third century, we begin to have physical evidence, a church building actually at Dura Europas, which is right again, right on the frontier, actually passed back and forth between Iranian and Roman control. But the very earliest surviving Christian Church from the mid third century is there. And then across the border we have Mani, who begins to form former Christianity completely apart from the Roman environment. So this is the concrete material then and these later figures as well that historians rely on as our earliest witnesses to what Christianity looks like, how far it’s gotten and the form it’s taking. And that’s the hard evidence then that we juxtapose to the kind of fantasies of some of the legendary material that more traditional accounts rely on.

Sara Barnacle:

And Shirley has a question about power. She says, since the Roman Empire was also synonymous with power, how did that power play out in the relationship between the different kinds of Christian thinkers?

Jason BeDuhn:

Yeah, that’s a terrific question. So before government support of Christianity, any differences among the communities or their leaders would be a war of words. It would be people calling each other names at worst or criticizing each other’s ideas, sometimes a little more responsibly, but that’s the most you could do to someone else is call them a bad name, call them a heretic, or whatever it might be. Once one of those factions gets tied to power, the temptation is going to be there to use that power, and eventually that temptation is going to be yielded to. And so all of a sudden a war of words becomes something that’s linked to the sword and linked to force and coercion. And so backing those arguments with power is going to completely change the dynamic. That’s when the conditions where one faction is going to be able to assert itself over others and actively try to suppress others. So that’s a very different dynamic once that happens.

Sara Barnacle:

Wow. And her next question is, do you think you can see differences in the theologies or interpretations of Jesus and his teachings that would’ve been influenced by these geographical differences?

Jason BeDuhn:

Well, even within the Roman Empire, language differences led to misunderstanding between Latin and Greek, so among other languages. So you see sometimes in the Trinitarian theological debates or the Christological debates over the nature of Christ, you see Greek authors and Latin authors talking past each other because they’re not using terminology that is exactly matched to each other’s vocabulary. Some of the questions about the nature of God or how many natures does Jesus have that shaped some of these varieties of Christianity that we’re going to talk a little bit more about in a minute. These are questions that language can impact how well people understand each other, but at least most of these Trinitarian and Christological debates are being held inside of Greco-Roman culture that has a common assumed Greco-Roman intellectual culture. So the definition of terms like the nature or the substance are things that everyone had the same education and understood what those terms meant.

If you go outside the Roman Empire, you can assume none of that Greco-Roman culture, they’re going to be very different intellectual cultures, different metaphysics. And so an example of that is Mani — still up there on the map, right? So Mani’s form of Christianity formed in a Syriac and Iranian environment where dualism was a basic metaphysical assumption that is that the universe is a conflict between good and evil. And that looks very different than the kind of monarchical monotheism assumed by Roman Christianity where one God is in charge of everything and has no serious rival or competitor or challenge that God can make everything happen exactly the way God wants it to. That is very different than a dualistic metaphysic that Manichaean Christianity would’ve had. There are other differences that occur between Mani and the Manichaeans and other forms of Christianity outside the Roman Empire in terms of possible ways of thinking about the relationship between God and Christ, and different views about the Holy Spirit.

So for example, for Syriac or Semitic speaking Christians, ‘ruah,’ spirit is feminine. So when you’re talking Trinity and you’re talking Father, Son and Spirit. For Semitic speaking Christians, they’re just going to assume that’s a female entity. And so their conception of what the Trinity is is going to be quite different than people who come from a culture where spirit doesn’t have a feminine gender, and therefore it’s going to allow them to conceptualize the Trinity and the relationship between the figures of the Trinity differently, perhaps more tightly than those who would think that there might be in some metaphorical or metaphysical way, gender distinctions between aspects of the Trinity. So those are kind of some of the ways that we can see that different language backgrounds and intellectual cultures are going to create different ways of interpreting the Christian message.

Sara Barnacle:

And Shirley was wondering later when the Roman empire began to shrink, and of course then its power began to shrink, did that have some impact on the relationships between the various Christian communities?

Jason BeDuhn:

Certainly! The previous question asked about the use of power, right? Yes. So if one faction of the Christian movement has access to Roman power and that power begins to shrink, that opens up opportunities for other forms of Christianity to survive and not be coerced into conformity with the form that’s favored by the Roman state. So we get, for example, a role of power in all this. The Iranians actually invade the Roman Empire and get as far as Antioch, which was a huge center of Christianity. And in the 260s, the Iranians overrun Antioch and deport tens of thousands of Antioch citizens into Iran. And that then is going to form one of the seeds or the foundations of this Church of the East I mentioned earlier. People used to call it the Nestorian church, but the church itself calls itself the Church of the East.

So when these western Christians from Antioch who were raised in a largely Greek environment with assumptions from Greco-Roman culture as the foundation of their Christianity are deported into Iran, they’re going to run into Manichaean Christians who have formed their form of Christianity on the basis of Syriac and Iranian intellectual culture. And so they’re going to start to bump up against each other. And since for most of the time, the Iranian government didn’t really want to meddle in these internal conflicts among the Christian groups, they let the Christian groups argue amongst themselves. And so the shrinking of the Roman power allowed these other forms to move. So if we go to another map, we have the fact that when the Roman Empire was powerful, it sent missions into Europe at a time when the Roman State actually favored what can be loosely called an Arian form of Christology or view of Jesus.

And therefore, when Roman power shrank, even though the Roman Empire swung back to what is recognized as orthodoxy, Nicene orthodoxy, which is not Arian, but Trinitarian, those areas that have been missionized in the earlier period continue to follow the Arian form for a couple hundred years while the shrinking Roman empire adheres to Nicene Christianity. And then I’ve added this map some gray areas in the Eastern margins, these represent Miaphysite churches which were able to survive and later thrive exactly because they were at the fringes of shrinking power. And so the non-urban hinterland that the state had less and less power to control and the territories that it was losing complete control of through the rise of other states meant that a greater variety of Christianity could exist because the state could no longer coerce everyone to a single conformed form of it.

Sara Barnacle:

Jason, we’re starting to ease into the time when we should be inviting other people to talk, but I would like to ask this one last question first. Shirley’s next question was going to talk about can you show us more about the spread of Christianity into Africa and Asia? And I suspect you might have another map. Could we look at that just briefly?

Jason BeDuhn:

I have one more.

Sara Barnacle:

Okay.

Jason BeDuhn:

So this is a good finishing point, right? Because this gives you the bigger picture where you’ve got trade routes making it possible for Christians to spread south into Arabia and Eastern Africa. So what becomes Ethiopia and Eritrea, and this is an area where other forms of Christianity could survive outside of Roman control. You have the silk roads leading into Central Asia where both the Church of the East and the Manichaeans could spread into central Asia. We have periods of time when some Turk and Mongol tribes were followers of one or other of those two forms of Christianity, and then periods where either the Uighur Turks or the Mongols politically dominated China, where they were able then to introduce either the Church of the East form of Christianity or Manichaean form of Christianity into China where it survived for several hundred years. So how far does it spread? It spreads all the way to the South Chinese coast, which is so much in the news these days because of geopolitical conflict of course. But so Christianity spread very far. Now this is all before modern 16th century, 17th century missionary movements coming out of Europe. These are missionaries that started in the Near East and spread from there into Africa and deeper into Asia.

Sara Barnacle:

Well, Shirley warned me that this was going to be something that we could talk on and on about and learn more and more, but I think it is time for us to turn to questions. Before we open up the conversation to everyone, I’d like to remind everyone that this is a non-denominational conversation. Anyone of any faith or no faith is welcome and should feel comfortable to speak here. We keep our focus on the texts and the information from our speaker, and we avoid personal stories at this time. But you are welcome to share those once this program has been archived and you can post to it on Bible and Beyond. So let’s open it up for questions from anyone. And I see a hand from dja.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, just me. I have been reading the Silk Road, which is a scholarly book on the whole part of the east that our author has been speaking about. It’s Peter Frankelhan’s book. And it’s interesting because he points out that basically a lot of these area, well, actually he said that in the 500s there were more Christians in Asia and outside of Europe than there were in Europe. And there was some book I used to have that was all about the ruins and the artifacts that had been found all over the place in the Middle East and through Europe up through let’s say, 1,000 AD. And it was basically, there were far more of them in let’s say like Saudi Arabia, et cetera. And he was pointing out that basically when it stayed that way until Islam came into the picture, and Islam when it originally showed up was not the Islam we know today.

It was really kind of like a continuation of the sense of we were all part of the same book, we’re all part of the Abrahamic families. And so it wasn’t that harsh a change, et cetera. And it was originally also the fights within Islam between the Sunni and the Shia made them more concentrated on that aspect than worrying about getting proselytizes from outside Islam. And it was after those wars were basically coming to a close that they started going after the non-Muslim people to become part of their congregations or their temples or whatever, or mosques. And they would actually go to the poor people and give them money like a couple of what is equivalent, a couple of dollars they would come in to come to start coming. And because it was so easy to be included into the Muslim faith that a lot of people switched.

And also, I’ve been listening to a series on the history of Byzantium, and during the 5 —, 400, 500, 600s, when you talk about the infighting and the Christian religion, that was very strong. And a lot of those people that didn’t follow the Nicene doctrine of the Christian faith were actually more, they had less problems dealing with the Muslims than they did with the Christian Church. And so that was another reason for the change. They could even continue practicing their religion easier as a Christian than under the traditional Orthodox churches. So I’m really glad you pointed all of this out. Thank you. Yeah,

Jason BeDuhn:

I could comment just briefly on that, yes, what all you say is quite true, that early Islam was very careful not to persecute Christians or Jews as fellow people of the book. They allowed them to practice openly. And this continues throughout history that Christians who are non-conformist in Christian countries often move into Islamic controlled territories where Muslims allowed them to have whatever form of Christianity they would like. And not only were there more Christians in Asia than in Europe up to the rise of Islam, but for many centuries thereafter, there were actually more Christians living under Islamic governments than they were living under Christian governments right up until the Crusades, there were more Christians in Asia than in Europe. And the Crusades start to turn and they start to turn because all of a sudden Muslims are looking on their Christian neighbors as like those awful, violent, dirty Europeans coming in and attacking.

And the Christians who had long been living in the areas all of a sudden began to question, who are they more closely connected to—their Muslim neighbors, or these distant invading Christians who didn’t seem to represent what they represented? So there was a real kind of soul searching among Christians in the region. And as you pointed out, Islam is a very egalitarian code when it comes to its opposition to class distinctions and so forth. And therefore there was a lot of appeal of it to people who felt maybe oppressed in various ways under other regimes. So there was a lot to attract people to Islam and also this freedom if you continue to be Christian, to be Christian in the form that you chose to be because the Islamic governments didn’t meddle in the internal affairs of the Christian communities.

Sara Barnacle:

Thank you. Peggy, I see your hand. You must have something from the chat.

Peggy Williams:

I have something from the chat. And I have a personal question. I got pulled away for a few minutes, so I don’t know if this already got answered. If it did, excuse me. Are these maps available in a book that you’ve already written or you’re writing a book now?

Jason BeDuhn:

Neither They’re cobbled together from various sources just to make these points in a forum such as this, that, yeah, so I’m just trying to get across that there’s a much more to the story, and so I just put together some things I thought would convey that.

Peggy Williams:

Well, it’s been great for me because I’ve always wondered about the map that we see if Paul, because I have a sailor in the family, and wondering why did Paul do some of the things that he did. And did he really? Then there’s a question: because sailors have to stop sometimes, particularly those long ones that Paul took in that era. The question from the chat is from Gordon. What is the earliest evidence of the synoptic gospels, John’s gospel and other non-canonical gospels in the East?

Jason BeDuhn:

So the earliest fragment is from that Dura church that I had on the map, which is in a site that’s today in Eastern most Syria: Dura or Dura Europas. And it’s the earliest church we have. And in that church was found a tiny scrap of the Diatessaron. The Diatessaron is a gospel harmony that Tatian—a figure that also appeared on that map—Tatian took various sources including the canonical gospels and wove a single continuous harmonized narrative of the life of Jesus from those materials. And so the earliest manuscript of any gospel we have from outside the Roman, well, this Dura is technically inside the Roman Empire, but from that area that near Eastern area is a mid-third century fragment of the Diatessaron, not of one of the individual canonical gospels. Our evidence from the larger Syriac speaking form of Christianity in the region is that they used the Diatessaron first, and they preferred this single account of the life of Jesus to the separate gospels until Roman power backing the Catholic Orthodox Church forcefully introduced the separate canonical gospels in place of the Diatessaron.

Sara Barnacle:

Thanks, Jason. Mallory, you have a question?

Mallory Challis:

I do. In talking about the gospels, I wanted to go back to something that you said about Matthew 28:19 and this commissioning of the disciples. And I apologize if I don’t get your verbiage exactly right, but you said something about historians may be disputing that verse or that claim, and I was wondering if you could speak more to that. Is that a claim about perhaps that verse wasn’t in the original text or that verse is interpretive and not literal?

Jason BeDuhn:

That’s a great question, and parts of the answer are that when we’re talking about the historical Jesus as preserved in the gospels, there are traces of remembering that Jesus was saying, “I have come just for Israel.” And if we take Paul at his word, he was the one who got the idea through he says, “spiritual experience through revelation,” that the message should go to non-Jews as well. Now, if Paul’s experience was – no one had said that before, and he’s getting that revelation for the first time, then that makes attributing those words at the end of Matthew to Jesus highly suspect and more likely to be a hindsight injection of the later ideas into the story of Jesus. As for whether the verse itself was missing, ancient compositions are usually tampered with most at the beginning and the end. And so there is some conflicted testimony about where the end of Matthew’s gospel originally was. Not enough in itself to make a case that this is not original. The author of the Gospel of Matthew himself might already have been introducing this. And again, it depends on who you identify as that author and when you place him in time and admission. But clearly, most of the gospels, the canonical gospels are written at a time when the authors are aware of the expansion of the Christian mission beyond Jews, and in various ways into various degrees, they inject that back into the Jesus story. That would be my answer.

Sara Barnacle:

While we’re waiting for another question from everybody, I have a question. I didn’t get to read your documents until this afternoon, and oh my goodness, they do raise a lot of questions. One would be, who is an illuminator? And the other question that I have kind of like that is I noticed frequent reference to Buddha.

Jason BeDuhn:

Yeah, yeah. So you’re talking about the Manichaean readings, and this is, I presented those as an example of what a really organized missionary activity looks like, because before Mani, we really don’t have much evidence of a very concerted, planned, organized, Christian missionary activity. But Mani and his disciples really organized things very systematically. They planned, they picked people who had appropriate qualifications to go to certain areas. And that Manichaean mission seems to be being read back into early Christianity by some of these other early Christian legendary sources who basically take the Manichean model and imagine it already existing before Mani. So among Mani’s titles in these texts is the Illuminator, the one who shines light on what Jesus was trying to communicate. And one of Mani’s insights was that what Jesus teaches is the same as what the Buddha taught is the same as what Zoroastor taught, that God sends messengers to all parts of the world in various points of time. This idea, of course, is picked up by Islam and incorporated into Islam. And so the reason why these other figures appear in the Manichaean literature is because of where Manichaeism is. It’s in contact with these other religious cultures, and it is able to draw positive connections to these other religions and Christianity that Christians in the Roman Empire, they had no experience with these other religions. They couldn’t see those connections.

Sara Barnacle:

Well, thank you so much, Anita. You have a question?

Speaker 6:

Thank you. I know that some of the information that we have in Western Christianity comes from artworks and funerary sites, depictions, stories that were depicted iconographic. Is there anything that’s sort of similar to that that goes through the Eastern churches or even, well, I know that there is going south into the Ethiopian church, but I’ve not ever heard of any of that from sort of the more Eastern churches. I didn’t know whether that type of archeological evidence existed or not.

Jason BeDuhn:

Yes, it does, and you’re right to point to Ethiopian example of a very rich artistic tradition that a lot of people have seen, but also in Central Asia and East Asia, we have Christian art or Manichaean Christian art. The Church of the East did not produce a lot of art, but the Manichaean Christians did produce a great deal of art. We actually have an expert in the audience with us tonight, who’s been studying some of these pieces of art from what’s now China or northwest China, the Uighur areas where a lot of archeological sites and a lot of works of art have been recovered mostly from the Manichaeans who had a very rich artistic tradition. And as you can imagine, they take some of the same core themes and topics and figures, but they render them in styles appropriate to the region. So you find a painting of Jesus, and at first you might think it’s a painting of the Buddha, right, because of the stylistics and the way the iconography is, but closer examination reveals certain clues that it in fact is meant to be representation of Jesus or of Mani or some other important figure.

So that evidence is very important to help us fill out the picture of what these missions look like when they reach these other areas.

Sara Barnacle:

Thank you. Another question has kind of bubbled up in my mind. I’m not quite sure how to frame it. The “apostle of light,” is that Mani?

Jason BeDuhn:

Yes and no?

Sara Barnacle:

Yes and no. Okay,

Jason BeDuhn:

So the apostle of light. So Manichaeans taught that there is a divine source of inspiration for all of the great religious leaders of the world, all the prophet figures you might call them, right? Okay. And so in some ways you can think of that source of inspiration as “the apostle of light,” but then each individual figure who has that inspiration in their own time and place becomes “the apostle of light.” So Mani can be called “the apostle of light,” but it also refers to this inspiration source behind Jesus and Mani and Buddha and Zoroaster and others. So again, another example of how Christianity, when it is developing against a different religious cultural background sounds and looks very different than what we’re conditioned to think of as Roman Christianity.

Sara Barnacle:

And Shirley had some other questions that we didn’t get to, but let’s see. Do you have a better definition for non-Chaledonian churches in Armenia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Syrian culture throughout Syria, Iraq, Iran, and India? Other than calling them non-something, would they be legitimate Christian?

Jason BeDuhn:

Yeah. These are the churches that I try to add that gray to the sort of Asian and African margin of the map. So that list is a very good list of churches that have been typically called Oriental Orthodox, and they do not accept the Christology, the views of Jesus that were shaped at the Council of Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century. And so they disagree about the nature of Jesus and how divinity and humanity intersect inside Jesus. And so they’ve been in scholarship called Oriental Orthodox. They don’t like the word Monophysite, they prefer Miaphysite. This is a very narrow technicality about how they describe divine and human interacting in Jesus.

But of course, all of our terminology comes from Greek philosophy and Greek metaphysics, and most of these churches are outside of Greco-Roman culture, right? They’re Ethiopia and Armenia and Iran and these other areas. And so why not maybe adopt one of their terms? So for example, the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches have in their name the word Tawa Hedo. Tawa hedo is in the sacred language of the Ethiopian church. That means this unified, that Jesus is unified, that Jesus is one, he doesn’t have separate divine and human natures. He has a new synthesized nature that combines divine and human. And so they think of it so important that they actually put in the name of their church. So why couldn’t we use an Ethiopian word to characterize all these? There was actually a conference, I think it was in 1966 in Ethiopia, in which representatives of all of these non-Chalcedonian churches convened to kind of regroup in the modern world and assert their identity over against both Catholic and Protestant missionaries and say, no, we have a tradition that goes back just as far to the beginnings of Christianity, and we’re sure that we’re right, just as the Catholics and Protestants think that they’re right.

And so are they true Christians? Well, certainly from their point of view, they’re the true Christians and the others are the heretics. So all Christians think that they’re the right kind of Christianity, the true form of Christianity, and it’s certainly not for an academic to say, this is true and this is false. This is right, and this is wrong. But all of these forms have grown out of sincere earnest allegiance to what they think is important and vital in the Christian message.

Sara Barnacle:

Honor, what do you have to ask us?

Honor Haase:

Well, I know this is pretty much I’m asking for conjecture, but what I heard was that for many centuries, Christianity had spread both directions from where it started, and even two of . . . . and the cutoff seemed to be the crusades. So from what I heard, so it almost sounds like if the Christian organization had not made what I have always considered a huge mistake to go traipsing off to Israel, it might be a really different picture of Christians in that part of the world. They might not have been so warm toward feeling heck, we don’t want anymore of this. We’re going to turn to Islam or whatever.

Jason BeDuhn:

Yeah. I mean, it is dangerous for a historian to conjecture what might’ve been, but it’s true that the Crusades definitely soured the environment. Certainly already Christians and Jews were not allowed under Islam to proselytize Muslims. There were limitations on Christian life under Islam. But definitely when we see a rapid shrinking of Christian communities in the aftermath of the crusade, so definitely the crusades soured it, but that didn’t have much impact, say on Church of the East or Manichaeans in Central Asia or further in China because the Crusades didn’t have any immediate impact on them. So there are other factors and other forces at work in the constantly shifting sizes of these communities over time besides the Crusades. But the Crusades is an easy one to point to as having a very clear negative impact on Christians outside of Europe.

Sara Barnacle:

Well, thank you. And Maureen, do you have a question?

Maureen Blake: Well, if I can just throw a comment in here. It’s mostly a tremendous thank you to Jason for presenting the information in what for me was such an accessible way when this is all 99% brand new to me. I’ll admit that when I saw the topic for tonight, I thought maps, huh? Okay, I’ll just listen in to support Shirley and her work, it’s utterly fascinating and again, shows me how much I didn’t know and how much there is to learn. Just one thing that just hit me was when you mentioned that when the Christian movement came underneath the protection of the Roman Empire, that people would then judge Christianity by the company it was keeping, and I thought, oh my gosh. For me, that’s how I feel things are kind of today. I hesitate calling myself a Christian sometimes because of what so often can be in the news about a certain power driven, power hungry sense of Christianity.

So it’s sort of like have things changed a whole lot from that time till now? But also just finding out, you mentioned all the different places that had their sense of who Jesus was and who was right and who was wrong. I’m just hearing that everybody’s right because they’re right for them in their time, in their culture. It is like everybody, to me, standing around the elephant and describing the leg or the trunk or the whatever part they can see. Well, it’s all part of the same elephant, but if the trunk is in my land, then I’m going to be closely associated with trunk characteristics. I don’t know if that makes a whole lot of sense. It just has given me a sense of a very encouraging sense of how large the idea of the Jesus message is so much beyond what seems like a small geographic area where the historical Jesus lived and had his mission. It’s just you’ve expanded my sense of the presence of Jesus’ teachings more than I can say tonight, and I’m just so grateful to you for that.

Sara Barnacle:

Well, thank you, Maureen. And I think you speak for a lot of us coming into this cold. And we’re not cold anymore, we’re on fire.

Jason BeDuhn:

And I would just add that that’s a very astute observation. Where did people get the idea that there could only be one form of the Jesus message, right? Where did that come from? I’m not sure that’s in the message originally. So maybe it’s long past time that people recognize that this is an inherently adaptable movement.

Sara Barnacle:

Jason, just quickly before we close off, could you say just a little bit about your own path into this particular line of study?

Jason BeDuhn:

Well, I love history and I love maps. You could tell that, right? Yes. For me, it’s easy for me to do a whole lecture on maps because they speak a placing of things that is something that is just the way my brain works. But I’ve always had an interest in variety and diversity of human culture, of religion, and obviously in this subject, the fact that Christianity has been remarkably diverse, adaptable, which has allowed it to survive, which has allowed it to spread as much as it does. And I always kind of chuckle at people who count up numbers like, oh, Christianity is the biggest. Well, that’s fine if you ignore all the variety and all the diversity that divides people within it. And so in some ways there are different kinds of Christianity that are farther apart from each other than forms of Christianity are from Judaism or from something else. So I love to recover voices that have been silenced and to tell stories that have been lost, and this is a part of that for me.

Sara Barnacle:

Well, thank you so much Jason, and thanks everyone for participating and listening.