Warring States Project
Alpha Christianity Project
This page is the portal to a section of the Warring States Project site which is concerned with a parallel research effort: the Alpha Christianity Project. The continuity between the two subjects, ancient China and the first Christian century, is that (1) the methods of philology are identical across all the textual sciences, including these two, and we wish by pursuing both to demonstrate that universality; and (2) the specific problems of the classical Chinese corpus and the early Christian corpus have many points in common; both corpora are large, the growth texts among them have not been generally recognized, and many texts, whether integral or accretional, have been misdated - by decades or (in the Chinese case) by centuries. (3) As a sort of footnote, there are also traces of actual contact between the two traditions, a fact which neither the Chinese nor the Christian end has been very eager to acknowledge.
Our role is this: We are investigating both traditions with the same basic philological methods, we are not committed to results which have become standard in either tradition, and we are not prevented from noticing points of similarity between the two.
Alpha Christianity is our name for the earliest form of Christian belief and practice; specifically, the form that existed before Paul, and which Paul began by opposing. The evidence for that Christianity is not conjectural. It consists of several canonical texts (including some fragments embedded in canonical texts) and also several early noncanonical texts. One of its distinctive features is that it does not mention, and is not based on, the physical Resurrection of Jesus. Another is the presence of a distinctive commandment against fraud; this may be seen already when the Markan Jesus, in Mk 10:19, recites the necessary commandments for the rich young man. (Mark is a stratified text, and the early strata, like the whole of James or the Didache, say nothing about the Resurrection, but are instead taken up with Jesus' teaching). In effect, Alpha Christianity is the people who based their faith on the teachings of Jesus during his lifetime, and not on theories about the meaning of Jesus' death. The message of Jesus was what he preached to the crowds in Galilee. In essentials, it was very similar to that of his precursor John the Baptist: salvation comes by repentance of the individual, and forgiveness by God. The role of Jesus in all this is not to die, but to spread the good news. And the content of the good news is that God does not solely condemn - he also forgives. This Mark tells us in perfectly plain terms:"Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mk 1:14-15)
Trust the goodness of God. This is a voice from the past, and from the earliest past available to us - the primary stratum, the core narrative, of Mark.
Where else is that voice available? Among the places in the early texts where the Resurrection of Jesus might be expected to occur, but does not occur, 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 the Philippians 2 hymn is pre-existent), but they do not focus on his death. Other texts which expound Christian living and practice without mentioning the Resurrection are the Epistle of James, the Two Ways tract (later attached to the Didache), Luke's Sermon on the Plain, and from a later century, the 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 they are witness to a distinctive kind of Christianity. We call it Alpha, because it can plausibly be related to doctrines (repentance, forgiveness, avoidance of sin - salvation through compliance with the will of God) which were taught by Jesus in his lifetime. In the nature of things, theories of salvation based on Jesus' death, which focus on the Resurrection (leading, eventually, to 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 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 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 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, rather than challenge, Christian commitment.
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 do the NT texts: 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 gave practice in applying standard philological and historical method to the material, has proved valuable as a guide to working with NT problems in general. In NT, it amounts to a new approach. It is assisted by the Project's lack of doctrinal commitment: we have no exams to pass. We 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 specific topic 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 for the best use of the precious personal time. Between those meetings, work and discussion continue on two E-lists, Alpha Christianity, a large group available to all interested persons, and GPG (the General Philology Group), the latter for more specific work on textual and historical problems. The journal Alpha is our permanent repository of results,
The journal, and our research program, have several technical 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, or between 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 are part of that excavation project.
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.
- Research In Progress
- Stylistics (selected results for specific texts)
- Other Christianities
- Reference and Publications
- The Research Prospect
First, a bit of Truth in Advertising. Our researches are honest, they are as technically sound as we can make them, and their results are interesting. But there are disadvantages. Some results may conflict with an individual's previous convictions or commitments. Some of them definitely conflict with mainstream views, and the mainstream has ways of enforcing its views: nobody actively associated with the Alpha enterprise is likely to be short-listed for Archbishop of Canterbury. These difficulties, though not mortal, are otherwise not unlike those faced by the early Christians; see Luke's Sermon on the Way (wrongly understood as his Travel Narrative). Individuals will have to work that stuff out for themselves, according to their feelings and priorities. What 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 Alpha.
There are three ways for interested individuals to be in contact with the Alpha Project. (1) the above web pages are public, and this page contains notices of conferences and other upcoming public events. Please come. Whether you can or can't come, comments, questions, and other items for posting may be E-mailed to the Project by the mail link on each page of this site. We will be glad to hear from you; there is much work to be done, and eight hands are better than six. (2) Membership in the dedicated Alpha Christianity E-list allows individuals to take part in the preconference and postconference discussion of these posted materials, and thus to be in closer touch with other interested individuals. This list is our permanent virtual conference. Membership is limited to 60 persons, lest the conversation die of its own weight, as happens so often on large E-mail lists. This is the participative side. (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 criticizing any pending article, or suggesting a comment to be appended to it, or proposing a complementary article which would further develop the subject. This is the creative side.
If any of this interests you, do get in touch.