Why study early Christianity?

A few days ago, one of my FaceBook friends who is studying theology as a candidate for ordination in the Uniting Church in Australia (ie my denomination) put up a status update saying she was fascinated by the reading she was doing on the Gospel of  Thomas, to which someone else responded that they’d immediately thought of Thomas the Tank engine. This got the response from someone else that you would learn as much about salvation from Thomas the Tank Engine as from the Gospel of Thomas.

This caused me to wonder just how many people read the Bible simply to learn about salvation, and how many people study theology/biblical studies just to learn about salvation? It has certainly never been one of my motivations, but I am a big fan of knowledge for its own sake rather than for how I can use it.

Having said that, if my sole reason for studying early Christian manuscripts was to learn about salvation, then it is possible to learn things from GosThom if you have an enquiring mind. About 50% of GosThom has parallels in one or more of the Synoptics and I certainly find that when I read the material I’m working on (the parables of the Reign/Kingdom of God in GosThom and their parallels, where there are any, in the Synoptics) it causes me to view the canonical material with new eyes. I find myself saying “Oh, I didn’t realise that it said that!” So, you know, if the Bible is really the inspired word of God and God really does speak to us through it . . . 🙂

Hmm – I wonder if I should tag this as a “reasonably intemperate rant”???

PS: I would actually be interested in why other people study early Christianity – do you do it to learn about salvation or for some other reason?

8 thoughts on “Why study early Christianity?

  1. I study the New Testament to discover the Scriptural source for the apostolic witness to the Jesus of history. I am not an academic, I must rely on what my sensibliities seem to recgnize as the most reliable crtical scholarly research. At present I find this in the works of Schubert M. Ogden, James M. Robinson and Hans Dieter Betz. Thus I find that none of the writings of the New Testament, the letters of Paul, the Giospels and the later writings of the New Testament, with the exception of the Letter of James, is apostolic witness, thus not reliable sources for historical Jesus reconstruction. Our most certain Scriptural apostolic witnes is located in the earliest layer of the Jesus tradition, identified by Betz to be the Sermon on the Monut.

  2. Judy,
    I take your “Thanks” as a sympathetic opening to say more about the Sermon on the Mount (The SM)
    as interpreted by Betz in his Comentary and Essays on the Sermon on the Mount. He describes in his Essays the wide consensus which prevails in SM understanding: “At present a redaction-historical approach is most often employed, according to which the evangelist, Matthew, himself, complied the SM out of Q-tradition and his own compositions. In this way the Q portions are brought into connection, directly or indirectly, with the historical Jesus, while everything that cannot be derived from Q is explained as the creation of the evangelist.” The JS, as evidenced in The Five Gospels, generally follows this consensus, to effectively pre-empt the SM of its real significance.
    For Betz, this consensus is burdened by a number of difficulties. For brevity I list only two: “As soon as the SM is regarded as the composition of Matthew himself, one is prevented from seeing that the text is quite artistically structured and composed in itself. Yet fromal analysis indicates that the SM is a unified, integrated complex. Second, A one-sided redactional-historical interpretation prevents one from recognizing that the SM contains a theology that is independent of Matthew and different at characteristic points. For these reasons , I developed the hypothesis that the SM is a source that has been transmitted itact. More intense preoccupation with the SM only began during preparation of the Galatians commentary, as the extraordinarily intimate, more precisely adversarial, relationship of the Epistle to the Galatians, and the SM continued to force itself upon me – – Out of these studies the hypotheis arose that the SM was a pre-Matthean source composed by a redactor”.
    This important hypothesis, freeing the SM fron its secondary Matthean context, leads to strikng presuppositions: “This source presents us with an early form – deriving from Jewish-Christianity (more properly pre-Christian Jerusalem Jesus Movement) of the Christian (more properly the Jesus tradition) as a whole, which had direct links to the teaching of Jesus, and thus constituted an alternative to Gentile Christianity as known above all from the letters of Paul and the Gospels, as well as later writings of the New Testament” (thus an alternative to orthodox Christianity).

  3. Judy,

    I study early christianity because I am fascinated in how the religion has shaped our civilization. I am not interested in the concept of salvation other than how it creeped into the religion via Paul, or gospels or Thomas.
    How did christianity change the societies that bore it ? How did it change those who did not become part of it ? And why did the christian communities write about it ?
    Did they believe that Jesus was to return in their lifetime ? Did they start writing about it because so much time had expired and writing about it was the only way to insure its longevity ? I have always wondered why an author would write the book of Acts if he believed that Jesus was returning soon. Is it possible as Joseph Tyson has suggested that it was written much later to harmonize Paul and the James followers.
    Those are the subjects that matter to me in learning about the ancient religion and its beginnings.

  4. I have been studying the historical Jesus for 25 years, both academically and on my own. When it came my turn to write on the subject, what came forth was a book of fiction, the memoirs of Thomas as an old man in India of all he saw Jesus do and say the three years they spent together. The book is called Tales of the Master and is available through Amazon. It is made up of 144 vignettes that come to some 380 pages. As best as I could, I kept the teachings of Jesus and eliminated the teachings of Paul because to my mind what Paul taught has little to do with what Jesus taught. Thanks for this chance to mention my book. Karl Bruno Gatti

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