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. The Resurrection simply does not appear in those texts, even where it might be expected to, like the Eucharist prayers in the Didache, or the hymn in Philippians 2 describing the descent of Jesus to earth and his return to Heaven. 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 Clementine Homilies. 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 will call it Alpha, because it can plausibly be related to doctrines (repentance, forgiveness, avoidance of sin) which, the earliest sources tell us, were taught by Jesus in his lifetime. In the nature of things, theories of salvation based on Jesus's death, which focus on the Resurrection (and eventually on the more extreme Atonement doctrine), can have arisen only after Jesus's death, when his death was there as a fact, and as something to be theorized about. We will call these Resurrection-based theories Beta.
The list of pre-Resurrection texts may be further extended by philological analysis, and that analysis is the Project's special contribution to the subject. Several early Christian texts turn out to be stratified, and their early layers are Alpha in character. Like John the Baptist, they preach repentance and right conduct as the way of salvation, and attach no particular significance to Jesus's death. The most important of these stratified texts is the Gospel of Mark.Results implying the existence of an early textual layer have already been achieved by previous NT scholarship. One notable finding is the discovery by Adela Yarbro Collins, in her 2007 commentary on Mark, that the text lying behind the Markan Passion Narrative lacked the burial and Empty Tomb story, and thus did not envision the Resurrection. This is a decisive confirmation of the lateness of Beta or Resurrection theology. An earlier analysis of the Empty Tomb story by Peter Kirby, The Case Against the Empty Tomb, reaches a similar conclusion using other evidence.
My own analysis suggests that the underlying Alpha layer in Mark is not confined to the Passion Narrative, but runs through the entire Gospel. The current version of that reconstruction (consisting only of the original text plus its earliest added layer) is available, for inspection and comment, at the bottom of the Mark page. In that underlying original Mark, not only is the Resurrection itself lacking at the end, but Jesus's predictions of his death and resurrection are lacking in the middle. That is, the oldest version of Mark's Gospel neither expects nor recounts the Resurrection. It is only in its later textual layers that Mark registers the Resurrection or Beta doctrine. The various layers of Mark seem to give us a cross-section of the early evolution of Christian doctrine, and the Resurrection turns out to have a late place in that evolution.
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. 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 first 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 defended works as primary and 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 in-house 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.
The extreme Beta layer in Mark, in which Mark registers not only the Resurrection but the more advanced Atonement doctrine, is of very small extent. It consists of only two passages, Mk 10:45 and 14:24. Mark in its final form can thus be called a Beta text, or even (as has sometimes been done) a Pauline text. But only in its very latest passages. Luke, who accepts the Resurrection but not the Atonement, takes most of Mark into his own Gospel, but omits precisely those two Atonement passages. He also omits all Mark's mention of the "elect" concept, another Pauline idea. Not only so, but in his picture of Paul in Acts, Luke entirely suppresses Paul's teaching of the Atonement doctrine: it is mentioned unambiguously only once, and then only in a passing remark of Paul to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:28). It appears that Luke does not intend to record the history of Christianity, but to reshape it for the Christians of his time. He does so in a way which denies the Atonement as a central doctrine, and instead gives Christian orthodoxy a distinctively Alpha cast. This finding, that Luke has a purpose in writing, and has consistently shaped his narrative to support that purpose, agrees with the view long held by many scholars, that Paul's own writings are a more reliable source for Paul than Luke's history. It adds to that perception by showing more precisely why Luke altered the facts the way he did, and to what end.There is a second form of non-Resurrection Christianity, usually called Gnosticism (since it envisions salvation by esoteric knowledge), to which we give the separate name Gamma. Gamma is a world of its own, with chief centers in Syria and Egypt. Its most discussed text is the Gospel of Thomas, and one of the key questions about that text, and about Gnosticism in general, is how and when it branched off from the Alpha mainstream. Was it in part a reaction to the Beta party's insistence on a physical incarnation of Jesus, and is the portrait of Thomas in the Gospel of John (which insists on the physicality of the resurrected Jesus) a hostile reaction to that new development? Do the Gnostic features of the Mandaean movement go back to John the Baptist himself, or are they a subsequent development? These and like questions, we feel,may now be pursued in a new and perhaps more favorable context.
Future. At a meeting held in connection with SBL/San Francisco in November 2011, the possible value of the Alpha discovery for future NT research was considered. Some of the possibilities are listed in a memo for that meeting. Here is one way of dividing up the 1st century into historical phases, which highlight several different foci of potential new research:
- Before Jesus (1-28): Jewish Messianic expectations; Jewish purity sects; John the Baptist
- Jesus (28-c29): taught in Galilee; was executed as a Messianic pretender in c29. Early layers of Mark; surviving memories in Luke
- The Alpha Phase (30-45): development of Jesus's teaching, c30-c45 (Two Ways, James) and of early liturgy (Didache; the Philippians 2 hymn); missionary activity
- The Beta Phase (33-60): emergence of the Resurrection and Atonement doctrines at Jerusalem; Paul's conversion, the faith/works polarity in Romans, the dispute with James
- The First Post-Apostolic Phase (65-80): peacemaking and new organization in the churches. Luke-Acts, Colossians, the Pastorals
- The Second Post-Apostolic Phase (80-100): renewed Alpha/Beta hostility and separation. Hebrews, Jude, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 John
Some current results of this study, at least from the Project point of view, are summarized in these pages. They are meant to be available for discussion and criticism in the GPG (General Philology Group) and Alpha Christianity E-lists, and for the Alpha Christianity real-time session which is held each year in connection with the SBL meeting. Individuals who would like to take an active part in these discussions are invited to contact the Project via the mail link at the bottom of this page. The main topics here covered are:
Method (including Gospel Trajectories), Text Preliminaries
Beta Moses, Elijah, David John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Mandaeans Two Ways, Hymns, Didache, James Paul Mark, John Mark The Pauline Epistles The Post-Pauline Reaction Luke, Q DeuteroPaulines Matthew Hebrews, Revelation Acts 1 Peter, Jude, 2 Peter, 1 John Gamma Gospel of Thomas Gospel of John Mandaeans Alpha Acts of Andrew PseudoClementines Apostolic Constitutions Some Specific Topics Alexandria, Antichrist, Antioch, Apollos, Apostles, Ascension, Atonement, Community, Ebionites, Egypt, Haustafeln, Jerusalem, Levi, The Lord's Brother, Marcion, Onesimus, Orthodoxy, Parables, Q, Resurrection, Rituals, Rome, Spain, Spirit, Twelve Summaries and Reference Material
Some of these pages link to a set of personal Notes on NT texts, persons, and places. The entire set, as most recently updated, is available here.
Lectures and meeting presentations relevant to Alpha Christianity will be found listed on the current year's SBL Meetings page). We will be glad to be informed of other Alpha-relevant events or lectures, and will include them as they are received. So much for the future. As for the ongoing past, see the Festival Calendar.
In conclusion, we suggest that attention to the Alpha/Beta distinction can simplify the investigation of the Historical Jesus and his Johannine origins, clarify the presently ambiguous term "Jewish Christian," bring genial Peter out of the shadows and put into wider context the passionately held convictions of Paul, give a better-defined place to the less studied non-Pauline and anti-Pauline literature of the first Christian century, show how the Apostolic and Gnostic materials relate to the more primitive Alpha tradition, and how the Alpha tradition itself (under such names as "Ebionite") remained vital and productive in later centuries.