Alpha Christianity

Galilee Fishermen

Alpha Christianity is the title of a specific research initiative within New Testament studies. In the words of the Preface to the first volume of the Project's journal Alpha,

Alpha provides a home and venue for studies of text growth and interaction in the early Christian writings . . . Together with our older sister journal Warring States Papers, we seek to demonstrate the applicability of philological methods across all the fields of humanistic inquiry. What are those methods?

As William L Holladay said in his 1986 commentary on Jeremiah 25, "The first question . . . is the integrity of the text: is it one unit or more?" we recognize strata, interpolations, and any other aspect of text growth that internal evidence may suggest. We remember (with Tischendorf) that, of related passages, the one which is more readily seen as giving rise to the other is likely to be the earlier, and (with Ranke) we prefer the earlier evidence, while being aware that all texts have their own agendas. We apply the test of coherence to individual results, and that of historical plausibility to the gradually emerging large picture.

Proceeding thus has led us to regard several Gospels (not only John) as stratified, and to view the genuine Paulines as having been improved by Paul's editors. So clarified, the texts attest a humanly intelligible Paul, free of the additions by which he was made less divisive for a future Christian readership, and reveal in the Gospel record a pre-Pauline Christianity which we call Alpha: a Christianity based not on the Resurrection or any other theory of Jesus' death, but on his teachings during his life. This early Christianity, which at first was little more than a Messianic Jewish sect, continued alongside the later Pauline or Beta Christianity down to the time of Pliny. It is still alive at present, in the day-to-day living of many Christians.

The historical Alpha Christianity is not simply Jewish Christianity, but a Jewish Christianity operating with only half of the Decalogue, free of the Sabbath pieties and Pharisaic complications which Jesus in Mark so conspicuously violates. Jesus' own statement of the commandments of God is given in Mark 10:19:

You know the commandments: Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.

That makes six - the part about fraud is in Deuteronomy (Deut 24:14-15), but not in the Decalogue proper (Deut 5:7-21). Several early documents, including the Didache, reflect this form of minimal nomism, and include the rule against defrauding, which became something of an Alpha signature. One such text has been preserved intact in the New Testament: it is the Epistle of Jacob ("James" in some English Bibles). This is a circular letter of advice and guidance for the young churches. It nowhere mentions the death of Christ, but instead shows how the Jesus followers can live together amicably (the distinctive rule against fraud is at Ja 5:4). This text at one point wars with Paul in Romans, over the issue of faith versus works. Faith to Paul means belief in the atoning death of Jesus, and Works to Paul means any idea that obeying the Jewish law or any part of of it is relevant to salvation. This dispute has been much played down in recent times, but it deserves attention because it sharply defines two different and incompatible kinds of Christianity, as of about the year 57, a generation after Jesus' death. Here it is.

Rom 3:20-24. Because by works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight, for through the Law cometh the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Jacob 2:14-18. What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled, without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

Rom 4:3. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."

Jacob 2:20-24. Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God. You see that man is justified by works, and not by faith alone..

This war of quotations was part of the primary opposition within Christianity at the time, and for decades afterward. Recognition of this more specific kind of early Christianity, we believe, can clarify many of the otherwise perplexing passages in the early texts which continue to exercise the commentators. The opponent in many of these passages is not some ill-defined "heresy," or incipient Gnosticism, but this simple and also radical approach to Jewish tradition, under Jesus' simplifying leadership. We can at once see why Saul the Pharisee persecuted these early Christians, since they eliminated at a stroke all that he as a Pharisee was committed to. And we can equally see why Paul the Convert, having abandoned all the Law in his enthusiasm for the meaning of the Resurrection, continued to oppose the Alpha Christians, who preserved part of the Law as the center of their hope of salvation.

In addition to these closely focused NT studies, the Alpha Project attempts to bring into the discussion contemporary Judaism, the John the Baptist tradition and its Mandaean continuation, the Gnostic literature and other Apocryphal texts, and the secular world of the time.

This site contains many things, but the ones most useful to new visitors will probably be the following:

These sections on methodology and specific results to date are more for the working professional:

  • Methods With Texts.
    • Text Criticism (Text Formation and Scribal Corruption; in a different section of this site)
    • Basics of Historical Method (Weighing the Evidence; in a different section of this site)
    • Style (A new method of measuring stylistic difference)
  • Research In Progress
  • The Other Christianities
    • Beta (Resurrection or Pauline Christianity)
    • Gamma (formerly Gnostic) Christianity, the other non-Resurrection version of Christian belief
  • Reference and Publications

Work proceeds constantly, and we cannot guarantee that any one of these pages will be entirely up to date. For current information, contact the Alpha Project at the E-mail address given below.


24 Aug 2016 / Contact The Alpha Project / Exit to Warring States Project Home Page

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