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 Paul began by opposing. The evidence for that Christianity consists of several texts or parts of texts both inside and outside the New Testament. 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 what look like 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), 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 ethical appeal found a wide response. It spread like wildfire, among Jews and especially, as time went on, among Gentiles.

The Alpha 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, 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 much later material was added to it before Mark considered it finished). Luke's Sermon on the Plain takes Mark further in certain directions, without getting too distracted with the theology of death. 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. 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.

[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. The continuity between John the Baptist and Jesus becomes more evident (and the Mandaeans become more interesting). The strife within Christianity, between the older Alpha theory and the later Beta theory turns out to be one of the main themes of the first Christian century. It came to a head when Paul's insistence on faith in Jesus's atoning death, rather than works, as the key to salvation (Romans 3:20-24) was countered by the Epistle of Jacob (2:18), which from an Alpha point of view defended works as primary, held Paul's view up to scorn, and ridiculed Paul's example of Abraham (Romans 4:1-3): for Jacob (2:20-24) Abraham was not an example of faith alone, but of deeds. The same quarrel, in which Christians argue with Christians about the meaning of Jesus, continues in such post-Pauline texts as Hebrews and 1 John.

It also continues in the modern church, where the primitive Atonement doctrine disturbs many of the faithful, including some clergy. For those experiencing that doctrinal discomfort, the results of the Alpha inquiry are welcome for merely personal reasons. That result is not why we do this, but it is encouraging for us to know that, in these cases, the recovered history, may, for at least some, strengthen rather than challenge Christian commitment.

Organization and Method

The Alpha investigation is at its beginning, but it 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, where interested individuals can come together face to face, with a specific topic to discuss. For these and other meetings, see the Forum page. Between these meetings, discussion continues on the Alpha E-list. The results of Project researches and of these parallel discussions are cumulated in the journal Alpha.

Technically, 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 from outside the NT tradition.

The work of Alpha is not confined to working NT professionals; it seeks to involve others as well: the theologically trained who are working in other areas, or the interested amateurs. Some of these meet regularly, in sunrooms or pizza parlors, to discuss this or that NT text. We call them Pizza Groups, and offer them our support. Part of the support consists of the NT results listed on this site; part is an invitation to take part in the online or real-time discussions, and to offer articles or comments for our journal. Inquiries are welcome from those interested, and may be sent from the mail link at the bottom of this page.

Contents of the Alpha Section

This is a guide to the results of previous research which are posted on this site for further thought and improvement. Given short staffing at headquarters, many pages will be out of date by the time they are seen by any current viewer. We ask your understanding, and invite your correction.

Contact

First, a bit of Truth in Advertising. Our researches are honest, they are as technically sound as we can make them, and we believe the results to be historically important. But there are disadvantages. Many results differ from mainstream views, and some may conflict with an individual's previous convictions or commitments. These difficulties are not mortal, but they can be serious. What then is the benefit? For some, a personal relief from Pauline theology, which weighs heavily on certain consciences. For others, the intellectual satisfaction of knowing what really happened. Or as Luke puts it in the Prologue to his Gospel, "That you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed." That line, in Greek, appears as a motto on the title page of every volume of our journal Alpha. Individuals must judge for themselves the value of that possibility.

There are three ways for interested individuals to be in contact with the Alpha Project. (1) The above web pages are public, and can be consulted by anyone. The conference pages invite submission of additional material to be discussed at those meetings. Please come, or contribute to the appropriate page. (2) Membership in the dedicated Alpha E-list lets individuals take part in the preconference discussion of the posted materials. This list is our permanent virtual conference. (3) Contributors to the journal will see not only their own work, but all other pending articles in the next volume of Alpha, and can join with our permanent advisors in offering suggestions on any pending article.

If any of this interests you, do get in touch.

19 Jan 2015 / Contact The Project / Exit to Home Page

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