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The New Book that Possesses the Potential to Rewrite History: After Jesus Before Christianity
by Dr. Hal Taussig
Just released by HarperOne is an important book called After Jesus Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements. It is one of the only books written about the two-plus centuries after Jesus — the time before there was even an inkling of the religion of Christianity.
The book challenges the general public, many churches, and most scholars to re-consider how to think about Jesus and these hundreds of years before there were ‘Christians.’
We know you, the readers of our Bible and Beyond blog, will be interested in this new work, since gaining familiarity with the many documents of various Jesus peoples of this time is the major focus of the Early Christian Texts website.
The book’s reception
The book has been very well received. Sue Monk Kidd, the bestselling author of many books including The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, The Secret Life of Bees, and The Book of Longings, writes, “[This is] a book that possesses the potential to rewrite history.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, author of the New York Times bestsellers Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others and Learning to Walk in the Dark, explains how the book’s unique historical presentation impacts our understanding of today’s Christianity:
“Reading this book is like finding a secret staircase to a room full of forgotten stories about what it once meant to follow Jesus. Some are so strange that they tell me what a stranger I have become to my own faith. Others are so compelling that they refresh my sense of what faith asks of me. In every case, they remind me how much my Christian story hangs on my grasp of Christian history—a relationship that is always in need of the kind of renewal offered in this book.”
Here are some new perspectives from this book’s focus on these very different kinds of Jesus peoples.
- Many different groups resisted the Roman Empire. They made fun of Roman military power and mocked Rome’s claim of divine power, even though they themselves had almost no power.
- Although the teacher called Paul was known somewhat well as a founder of groups celebrating Jesus, Paul’s teachings by the second century were quite obscured, and he was relegated to just a founder of first century groups.
- Most of these groups practiced gender bending in one way or another. New kinds of gender identities burst forth in these two centuries of Jesus groups.
- The person Jesus had many different titles in these first two centuries.
- These different Jesus groups lived in chosen families. That is, they lived together increasingly outside of blood relations or married relationships.
- There was no group or movement acclaimed as the correct orthodoxy.
- Almost all of these very different groups claimed belonging broadly to the people of Israel living throughout much of the Mediterranean basin.
- At least a plurality of all the groups in the first two centuries understood themselves as belonging to supper clubs, as this was the way most labor unions, other newly formed completely non-Jesus related schools, and neighborhood associations functioned.
- These peoples had no central leadership and had neither the interest nor the ability to tell the myriad groups how to practice or what to believe.
- There was not a New Testament in the first two centuries.
- In these two hundred years, these different Jesus groups were not primarily people who knew how to read or write. Rather, they celebrated, argued, debated, studied, and persisted mainly in oral traditions within their wildly different groups.
- The titles of groups that included the word ‘Anointed’ were politically organized around claims that Jesus had been honored as a ‘priest’ or ‘king’ before his death and still was so honored.
- Almost none of them called themselves ‘Christians,’ and when they did, it was not a word that connoted a new religion. When these groups or movements did give themselves names, there were names like “the students” of “Schools” of this or that; but hardly ever specific enough to be something like Jesus Schools of Christ. The very few groups or movements whose names did exist and survive were: ‘parties of the Anointed one(s),’ ‘wisdom circles, ‘the Enslaved of God,’ ‘the Perfect Day,’ ‘the Children,’ ‘the Altar,’ and ‘the Order of Melchizedek.’
Discoveries of variety, not orthodoxy versus heresy
What these overviews reveal is not so much a new religion, ‘Christianity,’ waiting to emerge in the first two centuries, but instead a wide range of creative endeavors going in different directions. As such, what seems to be happening is diverse innovations, many of which open up variety, rather than some overarching battle between orthodoxy and heresy.
How these discoveries came about
This bright new picture of the first centuries has come about through an eight-year research and Seminar project by the Westar Institute, a thirty-year-old independent scholarly organization. This particular Christianity Seminar of twenty-some scholars from around the world was one of four longer Seminars. As was the case for the other Seminars, this Christianity Seminar was independent of both university and religious direction. Independence over a longer period resulted in the Seminar discovering many different projects in a wide range of new scholarship over the previous thirty years.
Beginning in 2011, this Westar Institute Seminar was not so much a new line of thinking as a thorough research project of the many different undertakings in the previous decades. The Seminar produced 66 different papers about the first two centuries and then took two years to write the book in a very accessible style. So now the public itself has an easy door to what otherwise appeared like dense and disconnected scholarship. [In full disclosure, I am one of the chief editors and writers of this book.]
Where it leads
The pay-off already appears to be a way the general public can have a broad range of new ideas about what happened after Jesus — because it’s not just early Christianity, it’s something exciting and unexpected, something else entirely.
This set of innovative scholarly projects of the previous thirty years has inspired a fresh angle on how the public can think about what has otherwise become a declining old religion of the 20th century. Here’s to re-imagining both a fairly broken Christianity of the 21st century and these ancient beginnings.
The Inside Scoop on After Jesus Before Christianity is a series of exclusive podcast interviews and follow-up Zoom chats with five of the scholars instrumental in the production of the book, running from January 11 – February 15, 2022. This program is a special gift available only to Early Christian Texts patrons and Westar Institute members. Become a Bible and Beyond patron or a Westar member before January 4, 2022 to qualify for this special gift. Learn more here.
Taking issue with the assertion: ‘It is one of the only books written about the two-plus centuries after Jesus’
Brown, R.E., Meier, J. P., Rome and Antioch
Hurtado, L., Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice
Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World
One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism
Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity
Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?
How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about the Earliest Devotion to Jesus
Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion: The Context and Character of Christological Faith
At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion
Harnack, A., Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries
History of Dogma, vols. I, II
Could you recommend books papers oncommunities that practiced the tough commandments to love neighbors, enemies, not possessions etc.? – Thanks
Dear Mr. Steven Nunes–
Thank you for your critique of my assertion that After Jesus Before Christianity. I appreciate your perspective, My sentence was too short, and did a poor job of expressing my opinion. I should have made it clearer that I was thinking about the last several decades, but did not make that clear. The other two curious things about this sentence of mine are: 1) The two centuries that we identified as the time of our studies are not really a particular decipherable period of the time after Jesus and before Christianity. This was simply the period of time that we were able to handle in the 8-10 years of our work. That is, the two centuries between Jesus and Christianity did not function as some clear sign of the existence of Christians or Christianity. 2) As a sidebar to our ten years of work, the Seminar did in fact make note of something in the early third century which did mark a moment in Jesus movements, some initial indications of some several kinds of different nods toward Christianities under way. This moment had nothing to do with Jesus movements or nods toward different incomplete indications of sort-of Christians/Christianities. That moment was Constitutio Antoniniana, the moment when most people in the Roman Empire were allowed to be citizens of the Empire, or a real, but mostly marker where we stopped. That said in acknowledgement of your critique, it probably true that hardly anyone has written a book for this mostly arbitrary time frame. We are happy to have taken it that far, and continue to think it marks a whole set of remarkable and mostly new differences in thinking through what happened in those two hundred years. Thanks again for your attentiveness.
Thank you for this summary and for the book! Whatever happened to the Corinthians? Did they practice the love that Paul described (patient, kind &c), or did they go further, as Jesus commanded, to do the hard stuff (such as love our enemies, spurn money for God, minister to the least)?
From Chapter 11 (Join the Club) it’s hard to tell Club Jesus from Club Bacchus. Were there any associations during those first 200 years (or ever?) that focused on The Commandment to Love our neighbor (or at least one another)? Or were we too busy with our endless controversies to be bothered with that?