Alpha Christianity

Galilee Fishermen

Alpha Christianity is our name for the earliest form of Christian belief and practice; the form that existed before Paul, and the one that Paul began by opposing. The evidence for that Christianity consists of several texts or parts of texts, both inside and outside the New Testament canon. Its distinctive feature is that it is not based on the physical Resurrection of Jesus, or any other idea centering on the death of Jesus, but rather on the teachings of Jesus during his lifetime. These were simple. Jesus had eliminated the quiddling Pharisaic food rules (God does not care what you had for lunch; see Mark 7:14), and had also cut down Moses' Ten commandments to the ethical five, plus a new commandment against fraud. That new Law was recited by Jesus in Mark 10:19, in answer to a rich young man who had asked how to be saved:

Thou knowest the commandments: Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor thy father and mother.

Its simplicity was revolutionary, both within Judaism (where it also aroused intense opposition, especially from Pharisees like Paul), and outside among Gentiles, where its universal ethical stance found a wide and positive response. It spread like wildfire, among Jews and increasingly, as time went on, among Gentiles.

Alpha was opposed by Beta or Resurrection Christianity, again represented by Paul. Paul had suddenly converted to Christianity after the appearance of this idea in Christian thinking. And why? Because it touched his other Pharisaic nerve: the Pharisees (in contrast to their rivals the Sadducees) believed in a resurrection after death. There ensued an argument over faith (in the Atonement Doctrine, a further development of the Resurrection claim) versus works (as preached by the original Jesus) as the means of salvation. Paul had insisted on the Beta position in Romans 3:19-25a, and was attacked by the leading Alpha spokesman, the Epistle of Jacob (2:14-18). Not only so, but Paul's use of Abraham as an example of faith (in Rom 4:1-3) was sarcastically countered by a refutation from the same opponent (in Ja 2:20-24). This bitter difference runs through all early Christian history. Some sought to paper over the difference, and get the Christians to stop fighting among themselves, but the issue kept breaking out again, right to the end of the first century.

The Alpha Texts

The Alpha form of belief is surprisingly well documented among the surviving early texts. The chief ones are the Epistle of Jacob (or "James"), which advises the churches on community living; the Two Ways tract (later attached to the Didache), an old Jewish prayer for forgiveness; the Didache itself, whose core gives church elders instruction on how to conduct key observances like the Thanksgiving Meal in the absence of a visiting Apostle; and the original narrative of Mark, which presents the first interpretation of Jesus' life and death. (Mark is a stratified text, and Mark added much later material to it, to keep up with the times, before he considered it to be finished). Luke's Sermon on the Plain takes Mark further in certain directions. Popular texts of a later period, such as the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions, show Peter preaching at great length without ever mentioning the Resurrection. The kind of Christianity reflected in these texts we call Alpha, because it is apparently the earliest kind of Christianity, the one practiced by Jesus' earliest followers - and for that matter, still practiced by many Christians at the present time, though not under that or any other special name. Theories of salvation based on Jesus' death, such as the Resurrection and the Atonement doctrine, which in the nature of things can have arisen only after Jesus' death, we call Beta. The present church is almost exclusively Pauline, and Beta theories are official doctrine over much of the present Christian landscape.

[There is a third, or Gnostic, scenario for salvation; this we call Gamma].

Once it is recognized that Alpha did exist, as the original form of Christianity and not as a later heretical departure, a fresh view of many longstanding NT enigmas becomes possible. These aspects are also addressed by the group's researches.

Organization and Method

Over the past decade, the Alpha investigation has acquired a certain structure. It has for years held an annual information session at the national SBL meeting. It currently has an annual panel at the SBL/EGL meeting. For these and other meetings, see the Forum page. Between meetings, discussion continues on the Alpha E-list. Selected results of these researches are published in the journal Alpha.

There is a strong methodological component to these researches. We emphasize standard methods of text analysis: recognizing interpolations, determining the directionality between related texts or passages, assigning date and place of composition where this can be plausibly done. We try to maintain continuity with methods used in the other humanistic sciences, in the belief that they are essentially universal. Each volume of Alpha contains some discussion of examples of methodology or its application from outside the NT tradition.

Contents of the Alpha Section

The results of previous or current research are posted on this site for further thought and improvement. Given short staffing at headquarters, any given page may be out of date by the time it is seen by a current viewer. We ask your understanding, and invite your correction.

Contact

There are three ways for interested individuals to be in contact with the Alpha Project. (1) The above web pages are public, and any viewer may contribute comments or criticisms (there is always a mail link at the bottom of every page). This is our point of contact with the wide or Internet public. (2) Some of the pages assemble conference papers for discussion before and after. If possible, come to that conference and join in the discussion. This is our medium or conference public. (3) The dedicated Alpha E-list is a permanent virtual seminar of a dozen or so people, a mix of New Testament and other scholars who are available to propose and criticize solutions to New Testament problems, leading to the writing or rewriting of contributions to our journal Alpha. This is the working face of researches into the Alpha aspect, and into early Christianity in general.

Finally (4), there are the printed volumes of Alpha, and their readers, and any others open to the historical-critical approach to New Testament problems. We encourage them to let their friends, and their libraries, know about Alpha, and thus assist it in reaching its somewhat scattered, but significant, readership. This contribution of what we might call the reader public is essential to the survival of Alpha.

Our thanks to all.

4 June 2016 / Contact The Alpha Project / Exit to Home Page

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