Thursday, December 29, 2011

Greeks Bearing (Christmas) Gifts

The virginal conception of Jesus celebrated at this time of year is an obvious problem for sceptics; but it is also a challenge to the faithful. Very orthodox Christian theologians have struggled with the tension between stories that suggest, prima facie, that Jesus has a human mother but God for a father, and on the other hand the creedal belief that Jesus is both truly divine and truly, fully, human.

Knowledge of the biology of reproduction unavailable to the ancients underlines this problem, although anyone who tries to correlate chromosomes and Christology is going to bend biblical texts into shapes for which they were never intended. In fact ancient science might make this worse, since for many the primary or seminal characteristics of an embryo came from the male side, and the female was incubator rather than coequal contributor.

Little wonder that then or now, views of Jesus as a divine being only masquerading as a human keep recurring, or that theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer have questioned the value of the virgin birth stories while wishing to affirm the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation.

In a recent reflection the Rt Revd Professor N. T. Wright offers another version of this surprising struggle between Christian faith and virgin birth. Observing that "Jesus' birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants" and that the infancy narratives "have no impact on my reconstruction of Jesus' public agendas and his mind-set as he went to the cross," Wright nonetheless ventures into the quagmire, and gets stuck on still another problem.

For Wright the stories of Jesus' birth, like the Gospels generally, are profoundly Jewish documents. So far so good. But Wright states "there is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did". On the other hand "the only conceivable parallels [to the infancy narratives] are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modelled on them". He is referring of course to stories of Olympian gods conceiving children with mortals, often noted as as real but awkward parallels to the story of Jesus.

So the problem for Wright is a different one; not the joining of the divine and human, but the combination of Jewish and "pagan".

With this assumption in mind, Wright offers a speculative, honest, and for him uncomfortable "tradition history", that surrenders not the shape but the ultimate origin of the stories of Jesus' birth to a virgin mother to the "pagan" side of this dichotomy as it accounts for the development of the narratives:
a double move took place: from an early, very Jewish, high Christology, to a sudden paganization, and back to a very Jewish storytelling again.
Wright would probably admit that "pagan" is an unsatisfactory shorthand - but it is actually a much later and pejorative term, and serves ill to describe Greek and Roman or other Near Eastern religious belief and practice. But this is not merely a matter of rhetorical imprecision for the sake of clarity; by offering this construct of "paganism" as a sort of pole opposed to all things Jewish, Wright misrepresents the relationship between Jewish and (other) Greco-Roman culture and thought.

The Greco-Roman world should not be understood as a threatening sea lapping at the shores of a Jewish island, with Jesus and his people "fiercely" sandbagging their religious life against a rising "pagan" tide. Jews were very much a part of that diverse world, if a distinct people and culture within it, like many others. The undoubted emphasis on issues of purity and identity in ancient Jewish belief and practice implies a need to negotiate how to exist in that world, as one people among many peoples.

In fact the signs of "pagan" influence are many in ancient Judaism, and hence also in earliest Christianity. One example may suffice: the most widely-read version of the Jewish scriptures in Jesus' time was in Greek. The Septuagint (LXX), translated three hundred years or so before Jesus' time, was known to, and often quoted by, the "fiercely Jewish" NT authors including Matthew and Luke, whose infancy narratives are at issue here. The assumptions made by all sorts of scholars and other readers that the Hebrew text (which in the form underlying modern Bible translations was established later than LXX, although obviously LXX was based on the earlier Hebrew) is somehow more authoritative and canonical for Christians than LXX are very weak, if the attitudes of ancient Jews and Christians alike (including the citation of LXX in the NT) are anything to go by.

While the very fact of a Greek Bible already queers the picture of Jews maintaining a hermetically-sealed thought-world, a famous text from the Septuagint also suggests an alternative catalyst for the development of the infancy narratives.

The Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 is:

לָ֠כֵן יִתֵּ֨ן אֲדֹנָ֥י ה֛וּא לָכֶ֖ם אֹ֑ות הִנֵּ֣ה הָעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת בֵּ֔ן וְקָרָ֥את שְׁמֹ֖ו עִמָּ֥נוּ אֵֽל

 "Therefore my Lord will give you a sign: behold the young woman will be pregnant and give birth to a son and call him Immanu-El".

LXX has:

διὰ τοῦτο δώσει κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον· ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ

"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold a virgin will be pregnant and bear a son, and you will call his name Emmanuel".

The "change" (or at least the drift) in meaning that distinguishes the two is the Greek term for a young girl, parthenos, which more directly implies virginity. The translator was probably trying to be literal, but translation is always interpretation, because languages are not constructed of equal elements. In any case, many readers of Isaiah around Jesus' time read the LXX and took its version as gospel.

N. T. Wright acknowledges this issue in passing, but bats it aside: "No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did. Even assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this?"

It is actually pretty obvious why the Gospel authors "invented" or otherwise used it - for just the same reasons they used the other biblical texts they interpret as Christological, to make sense of Jesus' life and identity. But if the question is "why suggest a virgin birth" then the answer is even more obvious - Isaiah said so.

Wright however persists with his uncomfortable preference for seeing the origins of the virginal conception as more closely linked to the sex lives of "pagan" gods. We cannot explore properly here whether the "pagan" myths of divine parentage really are such strong parallels to the infancy stories. The late Raymond Brown, admittedly seeking a path to belief in the virgin birth and orthodoxy, pointed tellingly to the thinness of the parallels, under scrutiny (Birth of the Messiah, 522ff). And when the issue was first raised explicitly in ancient Christianity - Tertullian, Apol 21.14 is the earliest case I know - it was in a fairly relaxed way, as though the differences were far clearer than the similarities. There is no need to exclude their influence, but this is not really so self-evident as a motive or model.

It seems Wright would rather deal with the passing discomfort of a "pagan" mythic element which intrudes into tradition history, but is then tamed by a further Jewish-Christian interpretation (see his summary above), than be stuck with the notion that the Greco-Jewish LXX, whose existence and authority undermine the whole Jewish/pagan dichotomy, was actually fundamental to how early Christians (including the most "fiercely Jewish" of them) saw Jesus and his significance. Wright is therefore trying to defend not a particular view of scripture or of the virgin birth, but a view of Jewish and "pagan" identity - a view which stems from the stark dichotomies of the apocalyptic strand of ancient Jewish and Christian literature, but which is ill-equipped to interpret that literature or the history from which it stemmed.

An alternative "tradition history" would share much of Wright's and other scholars' assumptions. Belief in Jesus' divinity begins not with stories of his birth, but with his life and teaching and the events of his Passion - it then leads to reflection both on scripture and his origins, where a "Greek-speaking Isaiah" offers the possibility of a virginal conception, whose details are then elaborated so as to provide an appropriate prologue for the Gospels.

The virgin birth points not just to the presence of divinity and humanity in Christian thought about Jesus, but also, as Wright acknowledges, to the presence of different cultural elements in early Christian literature. For him however the presence of "pagan" elements is more or less "docetic", to borrow a term from later Christological thought - it is about the ephemeral rather than the substantial elements of understanding Jesus. Perhaps, though, the Greek element is actually thoroughly and consistently incarnated too. After all, the theological high point of reflection on the incarnation is the incontestably Greek, and Jewish, and Christian proclamation:  Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος - "In the beginning was the Word".

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Deciphering an Ancient Meal: Food and Identity in Early Eucharistic Practice


It can be tempting to think that Christians did not have distinctive culinary habits, or were distinguished from Jews precisely by a lack of particular concerns or rules.

There are at least two reasons for viewing such assumptions critically. One is that literary evidence makes clear a variety of preferences and avoidances among the general diversity of early Christian eating practices - even if some NT texts seem to prescribe omnivorism, it obviously wasn't that simple in reality.

The other is that nobody eats everything all the time. Or to attempt a more sophisticated rendering of the same point, note Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s observation that “where there is culture there is asceticism.” Cultures and communities do make choices about what to eat and not to eat, as well as when, where and with whom, that both reflect and create identity.

There are different scholarly understandings about the relationship between specific ritual actions, specific sacral foods and the whole of ancient Christian banquets in which these were initially set. Many have assumed there were always two distinct sorts of Christian meal ritual, a token or sacramental meal typically referred to as Eucharist, and a substantial communal meal known as an Agape. My own position, along with an increasing number of other scholars, is that attempts at distinguishing a sacramental ritual from a substantial meal at the earliest point fail because of mistaken assumptions, drawn not from the ancient texts but from later understandings of the Eucharist itself. There is no discernible difference between the communal banquets of early Christian communities and the rituals which came to be known as the Eucharist, at least in the first century or so, and the emergence of the sacramental liturgy as a distinct event is somewhat later than traditionally assumed.

Each of these views about Eucharistic development, traditional and revisionist, has at least an implied complementary position about the role food and drink themselves play in the commensal formation of identity. Accompanying the traditional view is the assumption that ancient Christians were quite unconstrained in, and hence undefined by, issues of dietary preference or avoidance in their general eating, but highly constrained in and defined by the elements of their token sacred meal, always taken to be bread and wine.

Where however the Eucharist is taken actually to be the banquet and vice versa, or at least where their relationship is seen to be organic rather than merely being joined together, then these two spheres of culinary signification, sacramental/ritual and communal/commensal are superimposed or identified, and the choice of right foods and avoidance of wrong ones is relevant both to a communal supper and/or a sacramental ritual.

Yet such an approach, considering these aspects together more than separately, may be useful even where a more traditional account of Eucharistic origins is assumed. As Mary Douglas put it in her famous study focusing on the meals of the 20th century English bourgeoisie, “the smallest, meanest meal metonymically figures the structure of the grandest, and each unit of the grand meal figures again the whole meal—or the meanest meal”.

In the case of Christian Eucharistic meals, even the most stylized medieval Mass continues to replicate the fundamental structure of the Greco-Roman symposium in its sequence of bread and cup, and to reflect ancient Mediterranean staple diet in its focus on bread and wine. So from either perspective, in Christian Eucharistic meals just as in the Greco-Roman dining tradition generally, the morphology of the meal is closely bound up with its food and drink via the expected sequence of deipnon (solid food with prominence of bread) and symposion or drinking session focused on wine. This sequence of δ + σ is the first of a number of expressions that could be used express the structural relations of food and drinks in the ancient meal but which also imply certain things about foods themselves….

[An extract from a paper given at the SBL Annual Meeting in the "Meals in the Greco-Roman World" Group, San Francisco, Nov 20 2011. This is part of a longer study applying some of Mary Douglas' ideas about meals to the ancient meal tradition and Christian eucharistic meals in particular, part of a new book project.
For further reading:

Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Andrew B. McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).

Mary Douglas, “Deciphering a Meal,” Daedalus 101 (1972): 61-81.]

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Method and Meaning: A new collection of essays on New Testament interpretation

[Method and Meaning is available from SBL Press here; this is an extract from the Introduction]

There has never been a more diverse set of possibilities for understanding the 
canonical texts of the New Testament, other early Christian literature, and the history 
of the emergent Christian movement that was to become the Church.


Diversity in methods of reading the New Testament is of course as old as or 
older than the texts themselves. The first few generations of Christians struggled
 with basic questions of method and meaning in their own attempts to read and
 respond to the scriptures of Judaism. These attempts, various elements of development,
 interpretation and controversy, are documented both in the processes of
 composition as well as in canonization; without them the New Testament itself
 would not exist.


If the New Testament documents are themselves inscribed efforts at understanding
 the Jewish scriptures as well as the person and teaching of Jesus, they
 quickly became the objects of renewed interpretive debates, and the catalyst for
 further literary production. From arguments over esoteric and philosophically
 ambitious interpretation such as that of so-called Gnostics in the second century,
 through the methodological differences between the Alexandrian and Antiochene
 schools in the fourth century, the key doctrinal and other disputes that characterized
 ancient Christianity were centered on just how to read Christian and Jewish
 scripture.

Fundamentalisms, casual or assertive, are  never more vulnerable than 
when faced with the pluriformity of canonical scripture itself. While theological 
debates both mirrored and fueled the ways Christian social formations developed,
 the emergent institutional and cultural divisions between Churches were manifested
 not only in preference for distinct interpretive methods, but in decisions
 even about the actual canons to which those methods are to be applied.


Debates over the extent and content of scripture reflected contention over the
 authentic borders of Christianity itself. This can be seen as when Marcion championed
 a Gospel without supposed accretions, or when “Montanists” claimed the 
ongoing reality of the Paraclete outside as well as inside the written word. From
 the ancient divisions between groups aligned with Chalcedonian Christology
 on the one hand, and others such as Armenian, Ethiopian, and Egyptian Christians
 on the other, through the millennial schism between eastern and western 
Churches, and on to the Reformation, each large and enduring division has been
 accompanied by the entrenchment of discrepancies between canons. Those discrepancies 
as well as the subtler, more diffuse, but equally profound cultivation of 
differences in how to read those books accepted has lead to a lively debate.


Modern scholarship has added to these dilemmas, not only because of the 
increased awareness of cultural and canonical diversity through more immediate
contact with different cultures and peoples, but also as a result of the discovery
 and publication of new sets of ancient documents pertaining to, or even purporting
 to be, scripture.
 The Dead Sea Scrolls have raised unprecedented but unresolved problems 
in the presentation of extra-canonical Psalms interspersed with the familiar 
ones. The appearance of Ben Sira in Hebrew both there and in the documents
of the Cairo geniza has forced new perspectives. The Nag Hammadi codices shed 
remarkable light on the ways scripture could be re-written in the process of being
 read, as well as providing the now-famous Gospel of Thomas.


Despite the differences just noted, the varied Christian traditions of the late antique
and medieval periods had in common tendencies to weave biblical 
traditions organically into their complex liturgical, spiritual, and doctrinal
 constructions. They continued to use earlier methods such as allegorical interpretation,
 if in new ways and with a new sophistication, tending at times to
 sophistry. They continued to use biblical texts for devotional practices such as
 lectio divina, and in the communal settings of eucharistic and other liturgies.
 The Reformation brought the Bible to a quite new centrality in the West, via
 the principle of sola scriptura and the explosion of biblical translations, exemplified
 in the King James Version published four-hundred years before this volume, and provided its own layer of complexity to canonical issues. While an accompanying 
emphasis on “plain sense” of scripture was common, the exposure of
 the Bible to the light both of the resources of emergent humanism such as that
 of Erasmus and of new emphases on evidence and rationality also heralded the
 
arrival of modern critical scholarship, whether undertaken in pursuit of new
 theological wisdom, skepticism, or intellectual curiosity.


Like any other aspect of western thought, understanding of the New
 Testament and biblical literature generally was impacted profoundly by the
Enlightenment and its successors such as Romanticism. Figures such as Spinoza
 and Hobbes noted issues that later scholars were to pursue more systematically.
 For the Hebrew Bible this was often the problem of Pentateuchal sources or the 
authenticity of Isianic prophecies; the equivalent seed-bed for New Testament
studies was the Synoptic problem and the closely related issue of the historical
 Jesus.


To a significant extent this volume reflects the current state of the modern
 biblical scholarship that emerged in the West from that time forward. This has 
come to include an array of technical and hermeneutical processes sometimes
 worked out of as distinct “criticisms” but in fact often overlapping and interdependent.
These have been used to establish the textual detail, as well as the 
canonical scope, of the New Testament; to consider its sources, literary composition,
 influences, and historicity; and to examine it in its ancient social, cultural,
 and religious contexts. This set of interdependent disciplines constitute classical
 biblical criticism, which, while not necessarily a complete set of tools for considering 
the significance of the ancient texts in the modern world, cannot be
 dispensed with by any serious reader.


Before the mid-twentieth century, critical New Testament scholarship as a 
tool for exegetical and hermeneutical purposes was a largely Protestant phenomenon, 
enabled or allowed by the diffuse authority structures of those religious 
traditions but not universally accepted. The arrival of Roman Catholic scholarship 
in this modern sense was heralded by the encyclical Divino afflante spiritu, which
 affirmed the use of philological, historical, and literary studies to support faithful 
reading and understanding. This and other developments in scholarly ecumenism
 have meant that debates in the academy around biblical interpretation often 
have little correlation with expected confessional loyalties, and that even in New 
Testament studies the contributions of Jewish and secular scholars can and must
 have their acknowledged place, based on criteria of adequacy applicable in any
 discipline.


The second half of the twentieth century saw the emergence not only of
 additional methods, but also of approaches that generally assumed and often
 acknowledged established critical scholarship, yet sought to go beyond it. One
 broad set of methods has emerged from more recent philosophical and literary 
theory, wherein the literary character of the text has been reasserted not merely
 as historic artifact for genre analysis, but as a dynamic reality whose life is interdependent
 with the act of contemporary reading. There have also been renewed
 calls for theological engagement, in particular with the canonical text, with what 
has been termed a “second naivety” that acknowledges the results of critical study
 without reducing the text to them.
 Scholars and readers have also become more aware of what was culturally 
specific and historically conditioned in pursuit of method, even in studies
 undertaken with “scientific” rigor and intent; that the assumptions of western
 modernity were not absolutes, and that the reality of Churches and academies 
dominated by white males was not irrelevant to the limits of scholarship or to its
 future prospects. The relationship between such new readings emphasizing diversity 
and liberation and what has been termed classical scholarship is not always
 clear, and their interaction along with debate continues.


 This volume in its 
collective voice suggests that careful attention
 to questions of method in interpretation offers possibilities for fruitful readings 
of the texts themselves, and insights into other unavoidable issues for any who 
would read with understanding.
 More than this, it suggests that interpretive method is not simply an issue
 that arises after the text, when as in every period individuals and communities
 have considered and contended about proper ways to read; rather, the individual 
writings and the canon of scripture are actually the products of such interpretive
 questions, and cannot be adequately understood except with attention to them.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Not the King James Version: How a Bible shaped the history of the Churches

The story is well known: the King, considering the need to make holy scripture readily available in the vernacular, draws together dozens of scholars who are conversant in its ancient tongues. They combine their efforts, and produce a version still read today, and which has influenced many others. Its importance is such that some have regarded it as inspired in its own right, and as the only authentic translation of the scriptures for Christians.

No, not the King James Version.

This is the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Septuagint was the Bible known to and cited by the Christians who wrote the books of the New Testament scriptures, and was regarded by many Jews and Christians in the ancient world as literally or verbally inspired by God, through the work of seventy(-two?) sages who translated it (hence the name, from the Latin Septuaginta, seventy - LXX for short).

Legend attributes the initiative of translation to King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt in the early third century BC. In the oldest known version of the story, the King assembles 72 Jewish scholars, feasts and tests them, then provides them with an ancient research centre to do their work. They compare their notes and happily produce the result - the translation of the Torah or Pentateuch, into Greek.

Subsequent versions of the story of the LXX move into more fanciful territory, suggesting that the scholars worked independently but all produced identical, inspired texts. This may be the first appearance of an idea later influential in various Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, wherein scriptural authority involves a sort of divine dictation.

It is difficult to say how much even of the more sober version is accurate. Third century Alexandria is a plausible locale for the translation, since it was a centre of Hellenistic culture with a large Jewish population. There was a demand for such a Greek translation of the Torah, which for Jews then and since has a unique canonical status but which was becoming inaccessible to Jews who lived far from Judea and did not speak Hebrew or Aramaic. Not long after, the prophetic and other writings (as then collected) were similarly translated.

This of course was before there was a "Bible" in the later sense of a strongly-defined canon, let alone a single "book"; so some of the writings in the LXX did not later appear in later Hebrew versions of the scriptures. When early modern translators came to compile versions like the KJV they took the position that books handed on in Hebrew had higher canonical authority than those found in the LXX alone - hence the "Apocrypha" of the KJV, which provides a sort of intermediate, semi-canonical place for those Jewish scriptures that survived only in Greek.

The Septuagint however was the first Christian Bible, the "Old Testament" properly speaking - it is to its text that the much-misused quotation "all scripture is inspired by God..." (2 Tim 3:16) refers, perhaps even nodding implicitly to the story of how it was supposedly written. In some cases manuscripts of the LXX are the oldest versions of the Jewish scriptures that have survived. The LXX remains the Old Testament of the eastern Orthodox Churches (who are thus the only Churches who can claim to have kept the Bible just as they received it originally!). It influenced Jerome's Vulgate, and early modern translations including the KJV. Although the KJV translators sought to return to the Hebrew text, some of their translations reflected inherited theological positions influenced by the LXX - check how Matt. 1:23 and Isaiah 7:14 are translated in your Bible.

Although its obscure origins deprive it of an anniversary to celebrate, this Bible deserves as much attention and consideration as the KJV, as one which shaped Christian belief and history; for its influence extends across a far longer period and over many more cultures. Its origins and its shape also present some profound questions for Christians about what we mean when we speak of holy scripture.

[Based on a talk given at St Paul's College, Sydney, for the St James Institute, in September 2011. Photo of P. Rylands 458, of a 2nd century BC MS of Deuteronomy, public domain]

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The (Really) Old Perspective on Paul

Did Paul exist?

Yes, obviously in one sense, although there are some curious characters on the edge of biblical studies who might wonder. I mean something more specific: did the classic Paul taken for granted in much contemporary Christianity, the Jewish convert to Christianity, the architect of Gentile freedom, the "apostle of the free spirit" as one evangelical tome put - did he exist?

Some aspects of this Paul have certainly been put under the microscope in recent biblical scholarship, and the results of this so-called "new perspective" on Paul are still being debated. What I have in mind though is a much older perspective, the picture of Paul current in the earliest Christianity to which we have access after his own time.

Many have observed the relative absence of influence from or interest in that classic Paul in the ancient Church where the canon of scripture was itself assembled. Adolf von Harnack famously observed (citing Franz Overbeck) that the arch-heretic Marcion “was the only Gentile Christian who understood Paul, and he misunderstood him”. 

By contrast Tertullian, the great critic of Marcion, is given an exceptionally negative scorecard for understanding Paul by at least one distinguished scholar.

The late Gilles Quispel suggested that because “Paul never came to Africa and… his letters were never really understood there”, “Tertullian…did not really understand what ‘the rightwising of the ungodly’ or ‘suffering with Christ’ or ‘Christ is the end of the Law’ really meant”.

Both Quispel’s and Harnack’s observations point to the undeniable differences between the theology of Paul’s undisputed writings on the one hand, and other early Christian constructions of truth and salvation - and of Paul himself - including Tertullian’s.

But the notion that Paul was somehow incomprehensible to ancient readers, but is now perfectly accessible to modern ones, should attract some critical scrutiny. Arguably such a Paul as Quispel's, characterized by certain key themes of the Letters to the Romans and Galatians in particular, is uniquely accessible to modernity, and in part its creation.

The modern Paul does have a history. If he flickers into view only briefly and unclearly in Marcion's project, he perhaps has more substance in Augustine, who shapes him and passes him to posterity as the convert par excellence, somewhat entwined with Augustine's own experience and introspection.

Few others in late ancient or medieval Christianity however share the same interest in the apostle as a distinct figure at all, let alone in terms of now-familar themes. The Reformation is required before we see more clearly the Paul to whom Harnack and Quispel referred. Since then, one version or another of a Paul centred on elements of Galatians and Romans has held sway in Protestant theology, but also in other forms of historical and literary discourse, as discomforting for catholic Christianity as (supposedly) for Judaism of his own time.

Since the rise of critical scholarship in the 19th century, the possibility of discerning an authentic Paul within a corpus of mixed origin (where perhaps Colossians and Ephesians, and probably the Pastoral epistles, are not attributed to him personally) has modified the classical Protestant view, but actually increased the emphasis on Paul’s distinctive theology. This helps to explain the appeal of Marcion’s intriguing but idiosyncratic view for Harnack and some subsequent critics; as the one known example of an ancient quester for a particular Paul within the broader tradition, Marcion’s project is structurally comparable to modern ones, however different their specific conclusions.

The recent emergence of the “new perspective” on Paul indicates that what scholars of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries assumed or argued concerning Paul may no longer seem so well-established.

Yet despite influential critiques of now-traditional emphasis on (e.g.) Paul’s own real or alleged introspection, the "new" perspective as well as the old focuses on a Paul neither accessible to ancient readers of the apostle, nor indeed of interest to them.

Tertullian and other ancient interpreters used their reading of Paul synthetically, to construct and defend their Christian systems and cultures in ways that drew various elements of scripture and tradition together, seeing the whole in the parts. This "historic" Paul, far removed from the "historical" one, is not discerned by excavating for some specific idea or genius within a literary corpus; rather he is the persona implied by that corpus as a whole, as well as by the wider reputation of the apostolic hero and martyr, including the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles. 

Of course this Paul is a construct, open to criticism which at times may seem fatal. Yet he must be grappled with, if we are to avoid not just a chauvinism of modernity, but a sort of hermeneutical solipsism. Did Paul leave in the canonical texts some sort of meaning imbedded, hidden even, which meant something only to him before Augustine, Luther, or Bultmann variously revealed it?

The fact that the Pauline canon was preserved, as well as expanded, suggests an ancient appreciation of Paul whose fact and character demand reflection. Our own constructs may seem preferable to these ancient ones, for all sorts of reasons; but our own Paul has not been immaculately conceived either.

Tertullian’s view of Paul is, in broad terms at least, far more typical in ancient Christianity, and not merely the result of some lack peculiar to the African context or to his own disposition. And Harnack’s aphorism about Marcion and Paul contains an unintended hint; perhaps, if no one “understood” Paul in the modern sense, it was because such a Paul did not exist.


--------------
For Further reading:

Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 3 (1963): 199-215.
Paula Fredriksen, “Paul and Augustine: Conversion narratives, orthodox traditions, and the retrospective self,” The Journal of Theological Studies 37, no. 1 (1986): 3.
Gilles Quispel, “African Christianity before Minucius Felix and Tertullian,” in Gnostica, Judaica, Catholica: collected essays of Gilles Quispel, ed. Johannes Oort (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2008), 389-460.

[Adapted from part of a chapter I have contributed to a forthcoming book on the reception of Paul in the early Church, specifically in Tertullian. Thanks fo David Wilhite and Todd Still for the stimulus.]

Monday, October 24, 2011

Everything you wanted to know about St Crispin but were afraid to ask...

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, 
    
From this day to the ending of the world, 
    
But we in it shall be remembered- 
    
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; 
   
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me 
    
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, 
    
This day shall gentle his condition; 
    
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed 
    
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, 
    
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks 
   
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

To begin at the end: we know next to nothing about Crispin, or even whether he existed. How Crispin and Crispinian were remembered, or imagined, so as to be invoked in Shakespeare’s famous speech in Henry V, is the interesting story.

S. Crispin’s day was probably remembered well enough in Shakespeare’s time, and even included in the protestant Book of Common Prayer, because of its association with shoemakers and a holiday alluded to in Westmoreland’s lines in Henry V immediately before the famous speech ("O that we now had here/ But one ten thousand of those men in England/ That do no work to-day!"), as well as because of the popularity of the legend.

The day originally belonged to two saints, brothers, Crispin and Crispinian, as Shakespeare reflects in an abbreviated form: “And Crispin-Crispian shall ne’er go by…”. The first clear references to Ss. Crispin and Crispinian, always commemorated together as brothers, come from the sixth-century , but suggest these two saints had lived long before.

The historian and bishop St Gregory of Tours (538-593/4) refers twice in his History of the Franks to a Basilica of Ss. Crispin and Crispinian in the northern French city of Soissons; if the Church was already well-established at that time, the commemoration of the martyrs was older again. Crispin and Crispinian are also mentioned in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, probably from around the same time as Gregory’s History. The Martyrologium – a list of martyrs commemorated by the Church in the western Roman empire – also confirms the two were being commemorated at Soissons.

From around the same time comes a much more colourful and extensive piece of evidence, the Passion of Ss. Crispin and Crispinian. This is a “ripping yarn” about the saints, but it is of no historical value at all. The Passion tells the story of two noble young men who came from Rome to preach Christian faith in Soissons, and who worked to support themselves as cobblers (a term the unkind might be tempted to apply to the whole story). Their lives of faith and work were interrupted by the persecuting activity of the Emperor Maximian, which places the story between the years 285-305.

The Passion is one of a series of martyr-stories connected with this area in ancient Gaul, all of which feature the same maniacal Roman magistrate, Rictiovarus (also Rictius Varus or Rixius Varus), a kind of late-antique Voldemort. Although Rictiovarus seems to get his come-uppance in the Passion of Crispin and Crispinian, falling in a rage into a vat of boiling oil, he was a resilient character who appears in other stories and was even said to have been converted by S. Lucy (of Santa Lucia fame, and dear to some Scandinavians), and martyred with her.

It seems thus to be a pious fiction, composed to fill the vacuum of curiosity created by the fact of a Church, and of relics of two martyrs commemorated at Soissons, whose real origins had already been forgotten by around 600. This does not mean Crispin and Crispinian were invented altogether (although they may well have been), but given the overlay of mythic and pious imagination, the historical kernel cannot be discerned. This recognition has led to their removal from the Calendar of Saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Passion suggests that the brothers went from Rome to Soissons while living, although the Roman Martyrology records a reverse journey in death; that their relics were at some stage taken to the Church of S. Laurence in Panisperna in Rome. The truth might lie somewhere between the two; perhaps the commemoration of Ss. Crispin and Crispinian began with the taking to Soissons of relics of a real or supposed pair of Roman martyr or martyrs, among many taken from the Catacombs, whose legend then grew.

This idea, and perhaps even a kernel of historical truth, might also be supported by one earlier, although uncertain, appearance of devotion to Crispin: a bronze lamp of the 4th century – considerably earlier than any of the documents connecting the brothers with Soissons – with a votive inscription to Crispin (or a Crispin, at least) was discovered near Pettau (Ptuj in Slovenia), suggesting earlier devotion far from Soissons.

A final element of the development of Crispin's and Crispinian's story, relevant to Shakespeare’s reference, is their eventual travel to England. At some point the story of the two faithful shoemakers was transferred to Faversham in Kent, whence Englishmen like Shakespeare's contemporaries could make it their own.

Another feature of this and similar stories of martyr-brothers is the similarity between these and the Dioscuri or Divine Twins, Castor and Pollux. That pagan pair was enthusiastically venerated in the ancient Mediterranean world, and the Church found it hard to displace or suppress them. They are even depicted, on horses with their distinctive caps and an accompanying star, on (otherwise) unquestionably Christian art works of the late ancient world.

The Christian response to the popularity of the Dioscuri was to co-opt them, and present various pairs of twins, brothers or friends, whose heroic faith could be used to take over the artistic traditions and intuitive spiritual appeal of a pair of closely-connected heroes; Shakespeare himself alludes to a similar idea in his famous “band of brothers”, and with “he to-day that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother”.

Whatever their historicity, Crispin and Crispinian evoked powerful ideas, before Shakespeare as well as in Henry V. Like the bard's speech, their cultus had also inherited and reused ideas which people before them had found powerful, about solidarity and courage.


(See further J. R Harris, The Cult of the Heavenly Twins [Cambridge, 1906]; L. Duchesne, Fastes episcopaux de l'ancienne Gaule III [Paris, 1915])

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Xenophon's Descent

Sexual offenders among clergy and church workers have often used their privileged status to act as though they were above the law, and ignore general standards of what is just and fair. Senator Nick Xenophon has acted in a way that is, ironically, all too similar.

By using Parliamentary privilege to name an alleged perpetrator identified by one-time Roman Catholic priest and schismatic Anglican leader John Hepworth, even against Hepworth's expressed wishes, Xenophon has stepped across a line from the independence of spirit that has won him many admirers on questions of systemic gambling and corruption into a new territory of irresponsibility.

It may be tempting for those concerned with justice for victims and for the ongoing protection of the vulnerable to sympathize with vigilantism, especially when Church processes and other means for seeking remedy are slow, or produce results difficult to understand. There are still too many indications that authorities in the Roman Catholic Church - but also in other religious communities including Anglicanism - have often been slow to act and compromised by self-interest. The recent stories that have emerged in Ireland are the latest wave in an ongoing tide of revelations which may continue for some time yet, even if important steps are being taken by Church and civil authorities in many places. The need for truth, openness and healing and justice for victims is not yesterday's issue.

Part of what is needed however is a system of dealing with abuse claims that can stand tests more substantial than those proposed in moments of outrage and despair. To act as though the accused are already guilty, and to "out" or otherwise shame or cast public blame without the safeguards of proper process, makes the real or alleged abusers into scapegoats rather than objects of justice.

A bishop or tribunal that overlooks general principles of fairness when dealing with allegations only leaves their actions open to challenge, and thus weakens the potential of the system to defend others. Zeal for the abused without commensurate fairness for the accused has been claimed in a case currently before the Supreme Court in New South Wales, where actions by an Anglican tribunal in Newcastle are being scrutinized. Its outcome will have implications beyond the particular case, potentially casting shadows across other similar processes and their outcomes.

So accused abusers deserve justice, positively as well as negatively; they should be subject to appropriate sanctions if and when their alleged actions are established, but they must also have their own rights respected both in the course of the facts being assessed, and when consequences are determined.

The facts in these cases are usually not accessible to most of us - and in John Hepworth's probably not to anyone except him and those against whom he has made allegations. The respect proper to those who may have undergone such harrowing experiences demands that particular construals of those facts not become mere tools in the service of other agendas.

The Australian's Christopher Pearson implied this week that the different outcomes of processes regarding Hepworth's claims in the Archdioceses of Melbourne and Adelaide respectively could be attributed to the administration of the Adelaide Archdiocese being the "most liberal" in the country (a bit like calling The Australian the most liberal of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers), and that the difference was related to Hepworth's little band of conservative ex-Anglicans somehow representing a threat to Catholic liberals.

This was an unedifying if not unexpected use of Hepworth and his story as a cudgel in ecclesiastical politics. The responses made by the Adelaide Archdiocese to Xenophon's threat have suggested not lack of attention or care regarding Hepworth's story, but rather a very difficult and continuing case, involving claim and counter-claim made at many years' distance.

But at least Hepworth sought Pearson's attention and dubious advocacy. Xenophon's actions on Tuesday cannot be excused in such grounds.

Hepworth is not an ecclesiastical faction, nor a cause célèbre to be paraded in Parliament, but a fragile human being whose history has now been scrutinised in ways, and to an extent, that demonstrate scant regard for his own humanity. So too the man he has accused has been unfairly treated under the guise of privilege. In the process, the slow progress of churches towards justice for the many who have been abused under the guise of spiritual authority and leadership has been set back. The accused also must also have their dignity acknowledged, not just for their own sake but for the sake of the abused too.

This blog was also published at Eureka Street

Friday, September 02, 2011

What Would Jesus Move? Doing Anglican Theology in Public


The appearance of Muriel Porter's new book Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism has unsurprisingly - and properly, I suppose - led to some strong responses from the Diocese of Sydney, which is its subject. After a digest of it appeared on the ABC Religion website, Mark Thompson, who lectures at Moore College and who like me is a member of the Doctrine Commission of the national Anglican Church, has now appeared on the same site with a feisty rejoinder.

One curious feature of Mark's response is a reference to a fairly obscure event during the meeting of the Anglican Church's General Synod in Canberra in 2007 that will leave most readers bemused. He writes:

'No mention is made of the way on successive occasions the Diocese of Sydney has been openly and vehemently attacked on the floor of the General Synod. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of the move in 2007 to avoid voting on a motion thanking God for his provision of free salvation in Christ by "moving the previous question."'
    He goes on to say "Many newcomers to General Synod were distressed by this inability to unite around central gospel truths." Mark neither describes the motion fully nor, just as importantly, does he state the outcome.

    The motion in question (more information is available at the General Synod website) was this:
    • Synod humbly acknowledges that in the determined love of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, died for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, bearing our guilt in our place, enabling our redemption from the slavery and curse of sin, our total forgiveness, no debt owing, freely given but obtained at great cost, a righteousness from God, not our own, peace with God, reconciled to him, no longer his enemies, our adoption as his children, and our salvation from the coming wrath on the Day of the Lord acknowledging that no one metaphor, model or analogy exhausts or fully contains the mystery of God’s action in Christ and gives heartfelt thanks to Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, for his overwhelming grace, love and mercy.
    This was and is a piece of presumably heartfelt theological reflection, with a sort of passing charm for some, perhaps. Personally I think it's a bit of a mess, drawing together some good and some very bad theology. It might go down in some fundamentalist circles as a appropriate sort of ex tempore prayer or exhortation - a Sunday School opening bid from the 1950s, perhaps. Such things don't have to be perfect. It is not, however, a piece of public theology for the ages, such as the Synod of a national Church should pass, whether you agree with it or not. This doesn't make it worthless or meaningless or bad, even though I obviously don't like it. It means that it was a quite inappropriate piece for a Synod to pass as a statement of doctrine.

    The acknowledgement in the motion that metaphors are limited doesn't solve the problem either. Even if better worded, this is like saying "Here is my quite specific and not universally-held position, agree with it. Of course people have all kinds of different positions...so now you can agree with it."

    Before I say more, let me come clean: I moved that procedural motion in 2007 "that the previous question be put" which was the "move in 2007 to avoid etc". And my motion passed, which Mark passes over in silence. I did stand up to say some of what I wrote above and write below, and some other things, although I don't believe I mentioned the Diocese of Sydney. More importantly, the Synod as a whole, representing Australian Anglicanism in general, emphatically agreed with me and decided it did not want to vote on the matter. They give a better indication than either Mark or Muriel could of where Australian Anglicans actually do stand.

    That procedural motion was specifically intended to allow Anglican leaders - who knew perfectly well that, however worthy its sentiments or good its intentions, this was not a piece of theological language that should be used to represent the mind of the Australian Anglican Church - not to vote against its good intentions. That they agreed with me overwhelmingly does not make me or them right, but it does say something about the character of Anglicanism, both in its style and its substance. This was not some sort of fringe-liberal conspiracy aimed at Sydney - it was the Anglican mainstream on public display, remembering it has theological and literary standards. And it did so not by negating the intention of the Sydney-based mover, but by deciding it was the wrong question to ask. It was, frankly, a generous response to an ill-considered proposal.

    How do Synods speak then?

    The most famous Synod in Christian history was probably that held at Nicea in 325. It passed the first version of what has become the copy-book expression of Christian faith. It goes:
    • We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
    • And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; Who for us human beings, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made human; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. 
    • And in the Holy Ghost.
    Quite different examples could come from the thoughtful decrees of the Roman Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, which in much more discursive terms than those of the Creed present the wider Church, even beyond that Communion, with thoughtful and challenging reflections.

    Synods talk about God and faith not on the basis of one particular kind of spirituality, nor by suggesting that personal religious experience of a particular kind reflects the common commitments of a diverse Church. Synods must offer substantial, sometimes difficult, but carefully considered language that can stand the test of time.

    When Synods speak, they address and speak on behalf of their members - in this case the literally millions of Australian Anglicans - and to the wider Church, in the Anglican Communion and beyond. They have to do so with care and forethought.

    To inform how it might do so, our national Anglican Church has a Doctrine Commission - of which Mark Thompson like me is a member. At present the work of that Commission is limited by the real diversity of its membership, and our respective constituencies. Despite Mark's attempted deflection, the Diocese of Sydney's position on issues as fundamental as the Trinity and the Eucharist are often idiosyncratic, relative to wider Anglicanism and Christian tradition generally. And yes, the positions that others of us hold about gender and sexuality and how we address them in the contemporary Church are not those of the past either.

    Hence our work, which is cordial and mutually enriching, is not readily translated to agreed doctrinal statements beyond those which are already foundational for all Anglicans - like the Nicene Creed, or the liturgical texts of the Book of Common Prayer. Rather, we tend to work by contributing our diverse thoughts into collections of essays in which we engage in respectful dialogue, not presuming to speak for one another or to question the integrity of one another's positions. We don't agree about the import of phrases cobbled together into the motion in question like "bearing our guilt in our place" or "the coming wrath on the Day of the Lord". We could hardly then be content with attempts at Synod to brush past these difficulties with formulations more heartfelt than thoughtful.

    The most fundamental problem however is that the motion depicts salvation as achieved not by God but by God's Son, who had to placate or pay off or satisfy (implicitly) some sort of cosmic dictator. It's not genuinely trinitarian theology, which says "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself", but rather depicts a God who relates problematically to another, subordinate, and hence only quasi-divine being. This problem is deeply linked to the penal substitution concept whose centrality distorts fundamentalist theology, and its appearance here merely underlines the charge Kevin Giles has made (and which, contra Mark, has not been widely discredited, except for those predisposed to reject it), that trinitarian theology is not universal in Sydney Anglicanism.

    Last but not least, the motion was quite gratuitous. We don't need to pass motions "thanking God for his provision of free salvation in Christ" (the mind boggles - is God eager for the minutes?), or saying that we are Anglicans, or extolling motherhood. I don't move that we re-endorse the Nicene Creed or the General Thanksgiving (see below) each time Synod meets - they are foundational for us. When we pray together at Synod - and not all want to do that, interestingly - we use these, and other nobler and more inspiring and appropriate words than those of the motion, in contexts where they belong.

    So - here's how Anglicans go about thanking God for his provision of free salvation in Christ:

    ALMIGHTY God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us, and to all men; We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, 1662)

    And we don't need to put that to any vote.

    Sunday, August 28, 2011

    The Bible is not a Book: Making the Word Flesh

    When this College was founded in 1872, a library was one of the first things required. As a result of gifts and efforts of early benefactors, our collection includes a number of rare and important volumes, including Bibles. We do not have the 1611 first edition of the King James Version whose four hundredth anniversary is being celebrated this year, but there are two copies of the King James from later that century, as well as two even older bibles, a Latin Vulgate and the earlier English translation, the Geneva Bible, the translation used by John Donne and William Shakespeare.

    But any Bible is itself a library. The name "Bible" derives from the Greek term “ta hagia biblia” – meaning “the holy books”, plural. The understandable mistake that the Bible is a single book stems not from theology but technology - the capacity of modern printing and book-binding to present it in one readily-purchased, stored or transported volume. The Bible however does not thus become a book, any more than Shakespeare’s plays become one work, just because collected between boards.

    Like any library, the Bible was collected, not composed. The first holy books of Christianity were simply those already collected within Judaism. In the century or so after the life of Jesus, writings which reflected on his story and its significance were generated too, and these were received by his followers as expressing authentically their faith in him, and thus added to the category of holy books.

    Occasionally various sacred books were bound in one volume for corporate or liturgical use, but of the earliest codices which have survived and which seem to have attempted a comprehensive collection of holy books, none correspond exactly to what is bound in a King James Bible or its more recent successors. Some of those ancient volumes omit books later regarded as biblical, while others include additional books later omitted from the canon of scripture. While the defined character and scope of the King James Version and other English Bibles may give the impression this matter was resolved, Protestant, Roman Catholic and eastern Orthodox Christians all maintain slightly different collections as canonical. The differences are admittedly few; the importance of this has less to do with what writings are included but rather how we read, both these books and others. The Bible is a collection of poetry and prose, history and fable, proverbs and predictions, jostling together on a shelf of faith, creatively, unpredictably, as faithful and true and diverse as its readers. In claiming these as inspired Christians make a claim to the diversity of revelation and its open-endedness.

    But what difference does it make that the Bible is a library? When you read one book, it may be fair to ask “is this true?” or “is this right?” But such questions, to which fundamentalism always tends because it misunderstands the character of the Bible, are the wrong ones to ask of libraries. It is both impossible and insufficient for a library to be “true” – a bus ticket or a tax invoice can be true, but the truths of a library are diverse. One should ask whether a library is outstanding, expansive, comprehensive, useful – it must, simply, be “good”. A library does not exist to contain propositions, but to change lives.

    Unsurprisingly the Bible contains its own varied wisdom about books and libraries themselves; the cynical preacher of the Book Ecclesiastes famously anticipated the attitudes of jaded teachers and students alike, observing (according to the King James Version) “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh”. But the Gospel of John casts a different light on the multiplicity of books, and about their relationship to truth. It begins by speaking of a word, the Word, who was in the beginning with God but whose true expression was not found in writing; “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”.

    At the end of that same Gospel, the subject of words returns; again to quote the King James Version, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” The closing words of the Gospel come just a few verses later: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”

    The books are, in the end, not the point; that unique life, beyond the power of all books to contain or convey, the origin of the faith that led to this College being established, is. That life inspires us to seek in and for one another here all what is good, and what is true, and to strive for it. For the Word written, and above all the Word himself, inspires us to seek wisdom not only in facts and books, but in the whole of our own lives.


    Tuesday, August 09, 2011

    Contesting the Legacy of Abraham: Guy Stroumsa at the Oxford Patristics Conference


    Guy Stroumsa gave the opening lecture of the 16th International
    Patristics Conference last night, on "Athens, Jerusalem, Mecca: The
    Patristic Crucible of the Abrahamic Religions" at the University Church.

    Stroumsa began reflecting how Henry Chadwick, Henri de Lubac and Harry Wolfson were all reflecting on the Church Fathers during horrors of WWII that affected them quite directly (it was hard not to think of being here amid the dreaming spires while London or parts of it have been burning again).

    He suggested that while the Church Fathers are often the preserve of ecclesiastics and seminaries that these three remarkable individuals (apparently he met them all) remind us that Patristics is fundamental to the humanities, as foundational for later Western thought. In a sweeping survey both of important ancient writers and their modern interpreters, he was (appreciative but) critical of Harnack's view of Christian exceptionalism and leant rather to Max Müller's pioneering work in comparative religion, notably the idea (drawn in part from Islam) of "religions of the book".

    Stroumsa argued that it was necessary to consider not only "Athens" and "Jerusalem" as has often been done (the juxtaposition of Greco-Roman tradition with Judaism and Christianity) but to include Mecca (S., as a part-time resident of Jerusalem now, was not being entirely "armchair" about this I suspect).

    His exploration of this link was based in late antique specifics rather than more abstract ideas such as that of "monotheistic religions" (a very recent idea and coinage). More fruitful for Stroumsa was the Abrahamic link - not quite in the sense of that other recent coinage of "Abrahamic religions", but rather considering how the three ancient traditions contested over the legacy of Abraham.

    From (Paul to) Justin to Eusebius we find the claim that Christianity restores Abrahamic faith - interestingly sometimes with a swipe at Moses and the dross of the ritual law in passing. Likewise Islam claims its faith was Abraham's too, and that it was restoring what Jews and Christians had corrupted.

    Just as Christianity was originally a Jewish heresy in effect, Islam began as a Christian heresy - at least in the eyes of such as John of Damascus. Each claimed to be the true exemplar of Abraham's faith. This commonality and this contest are the scarlet thread running through the Fathers, and late antiquity.