Warring States Project
Several early Christian texts imply a version of Christianity in which the Resurrection of Christ plays no part; they look for salvation in a different way - in the repentance and forgiveness process which the Jesus movement seems to have inherited from its precursor, John the Baptist. The Resurrection simply does not appear in those texts, even where it might be expected to. Among them are the Eucharist prayers in the Didache, or the hymn in Philippians 2 describing the descent of Jesus to earth and his return to Heaven. These texts honor Jesus, sometimes extravagantly (the Jesus of Philippians 2 is pre-existent), but they do not focus on his death. Other texts which expound Christian living and Christian practice without mentioning the Resurrection are the Epistle of James, the Two Ways tract, Luke's Sermon on the Plain, and from a later century, the very long Clementine Homilies and Recognitions. There are too many such texts, over too many centuries, for their omission of the Resurrection to be accidental. It seems that there is something there; a distinctive kind of Christianity. We call it Alpha, because it can plausibly be related to doctrines (repentance, forgiveness, avoidance of sin - personal salvation through personal compliance with the will of God) which, the earliest sources tell us, were taught by Jesus in his lifetime. Whereas, in the nature of things, theories of salvation based on Jesus' death, which focus on the Resurrection (and eventually, the more extreme Atonement doctrine), can have arisen only after Jesus' death, when his death was there as a fact to be theorized about. We call these Resurrection-based theories Beta.
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). That continuity is already there in the texts, but it now takes on a new vitality and importance. The strife within Christianity between the older Alpha theory and the later Beta theory (the latter vigorously championed by Paul) 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 James (2:18), which from an Alpha point of view defended works as primary, held Paul's faith-only view up to scorn, and ridiculed Paul's example of Abraham (Romans 4:1-3), who for James (2:20-24) was not an example of faith alone, but an example of deeds. The same internal quarrel, in which Christians argue with other Christians about the meaning of Jesus, continues in many post-Pauline texts, such as Hebrews and 1 John.
It also continues in the modern church, where the intrinsic monstrosity of the primitive Atonement doctrine (an innocent person is killed to cancel out my sins) disturbs many of the otherwise faithful, including some in the clergy, as has been recently noticed in the relevant literature. 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 to know that, in this case, the recovered history may strengthen faith rather than challenge it.
In Alpha, we have not only one of Bart Ehrman's"Lost Christianities," but a historically overlaid and suppressed Christianity which is the earliest, and most authentic, of all.
This research comes out of the Project's previous experience with the classical Chinese texts, which present the same problems as the NT texts do: unacknowledged interpolations, drastically misdated texts with consequent loss of developmental history, and a too ready acceptance of legends put forth by the several partisans in a culture-wide argument about the past. That experience, which is characterized by applying standard philological and historical method to the material, has proved valuable as a guide to working with NT problems in general. It amounts to a new approach. It is assisted by lack of doctrinal commitment: we have no exams to pass, and are free to look at the texts simply to see what they are up to, and to notice details which the usual commentaries agree to pass over.
The Alpha enterprise is at its beginning, but even at this early date, it has 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 each year, where interested individuals can also come together face to face, but this time with a topic or two to discuss. At these sessions (as at the Project's Sinological conferences), we emphasize predistribution of papers, or simply of memoranda outlining a problem or a possible solution, which can furnish the background and basis for the precious personal time. In between those meetings, work and discussion continue through two E-lists, the general Alpha Christianity list, which also serves as an information center, and GPG (the General Philology Group), for more specific work on textual and historical problems. The Project's second journal, Alpha, is devoted to NT matters, and is our chief repository of results,
The journal, and our program agenda in general, has several foci:
(1) Method. How do you recognize an interpolation, such as Mark 14:28? How do you determine the directionality between two literarily related texts, such as Mark and Matthew (a matter on which NT opinion as a whole is still rancorously divided, after centuries of work)?
(2) Text Analysis. Are there interpolations in Mark, and do they add up to strata, in which we can see successive additions, doctrinal or otherwise, to an original narrative? If so, that original narrative is the earliest internal account of Christianity. And what do the interpolations in Paul tell us? Most probably, they give us a window on the immediate post-Apostolic period, and once subtracted from the letters which they now infest, they also give us a truer and steadier portrait of Paul himself, than is presently available from scholarship which on the whole declines to take seriously the possibility of interpolation in these texts.
(3) Relative Dating. Which texts are aware of which others? In the specific Pauline area, did Acts know Paul's letters? It is increasingly coming to be recognized (by Morton Enslin and more recently by others including Paul Elbert) that it did. This puts the agenda of Acts in an altogether new light: Acts is not recounting, it is instead rewriting, and from an Alpha viewpoint, the history of Paul and his doctrines within the larger Christian saga. The program we are following with respect to Paul is the one laid out by Robert Martyr Hawkins in 1943: put aside the spurious epistles, and then eliminate the interpolations from what is left. The result is the Historical Paul, or as near to it as circumstances will permit us to get. As confirmation of the previously defined list of seven genuine letters, we have the advantage of Glenn S Holland's 1988 work, which,at least for rational inquirers, settles the still vexed question of 2 Thessalonians. For the post-Pauline interpolations in the genuine Pauline letters we follow the work of William O Walker Jr from 1975 onward. We also attempt to view the editing of the Pauline letters as a whole, and find John Knox's 1935 suggestion of Onesimus as the key figure, and Ephesus as the constant location of his activity, to be correct and suggestive. Together with the work by Paul's successors and imitators on reshaping and establishing the heritage of Paul, the composition of the Second Tier Gospels Matthew and Luke, in approximately the same period, constitute a post-Apostolic reaction to the loss of peripatetic Apostolic authority, and its conversion to permanent resident authority. The coherence of these various strands has not been widely recognized in the field.
(4) Absolute Chronology. The precious evidence in the Pliny/Trajan letters, for "persecutions" by Rome has not been widely used. As for persecutions in the first Christian century, there were none; any individual, Christian of other, who refused to worship the Emperor was automatically guilty of a crime punishable by death. The date of 1 Peter, or (following Perdelwitz) rather of its second layer, which is a direct response to the earliest of the wave of executions Pliny notes in Sinope, is narrowed by this evidence. The history of leadership in the Roman church (misstated by the Apostolic Constitutions, and more securely present in the Roman Mass) has not been invoked to date 1 Clement, a crucial text since it establishes a terminus ante quem for the several texts of which it is aware, including 1 Peter and Ephesians. The almost universal tendency to misread the Caligula prediction in Mark 13:10 as instead referring to Titus, exactly 30 years later, has resulted in an inversion of the earliest text evidence. The earliest NT text is Mark (accretional, with a completion date of c45), with Paul's 1 Thessalonians (c51) coming more than 5 years later. The Birkat ha-Minim (most commonly dated to c85, and noted by Louis Martyn as important) has not been widely recognized as leading to expulsion of Christians from synagogues, which immediately exposed them, once out from under the umbrella of a recognized religion, to denunciation by their neighbors and to automatic execution by the Roman authorities. Here is the other aspect of the Pliny executions and their precursors. Resentment at that expulsion runs like a leitmotif through the Gospel of John (9:22, 12:42, 16:2), a fact which also helps to date that stratum of the Gospel of John. Thus does the chronology gradually become clear. And with the chronology there will appear, at last, the actual evolution of Christianity insofar as it can now be recovered.
Such are the possibilities of approaching the NT material, and key noncanonical documents of that period, with a view to determining their character, date, and value as evidence.
All Christianities, including that of Paul, are in this sense currently "Lost." They await excavation. We wish to be part of that excavation project.
Further details, most of which are work in progress, and thus are shared to attract criticism or further suggestions, are available elsewhere on this site, or by contacting the Project at the mail link at the bottom of this page.
- Lower Criticism (Scribal Corruption)
- Higher Criticism (Text Growth)
- Research In Progress
- Topics (including Persons and Places)
- Other Christianities
- The Research Prospect
The topic for the 2014 Alpha Seminar meeting is the question of Luke and Q, since our analysis of Luke appears to offer an alternative to Q. Predistributed papers, notes, and background reading suggestions are posted on the Seminar page.
Throughout the year, the Project's dedicated Alpha Christianity E-list offers a permanent forum for questions and proposals on any topic from the first Christian century. Let us hear from you. Much is waiting to be done, and work done so far is waiting to be extended and refined.