Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in Its Context

By Philip F. Esler | Go to book overview

6

DEVIANCE AND APOSTASY

Some applications of deviance theory to first-century Judaism and Christianity

John M.G. Barclay

INTRODUCTION

Historians of early Christianity are concerned with the phenomenon of deviance in at least two respects. In the first place, we wish to understand the process by which, over a period of three or four generations, this originally Jewish movement was deemed to have deviated sufficiently from Jewish norms to be regarded by its parent community as a distinct social and religious entity. Secondly, we are intrigued by the ways in which the early Christian communities defined their own boundaries, a process which involved excluding those they considered to have deviated from the norms of Christian practice or belief. This double process of definition is central to the phenomenon of early Christianity: its definition as distinct from Judaism and its internal definition of its own identity. The sort of questions which intrigue us are well illustrated by the case of Paul, who was indeed a pivotal figure in the whole process: we want to know how Paul came to be regarded as an apostate by his Jewish contemporaries and how he, in turn, came to reject some adherents of his churches as ‘false brothers’.

Sociologists have long been concerned with the processes by which societies define and maintain their boundaries, and special attention has also been accorded to those individuals or groups which deviate from social norms. The ‘sociology of deviance’ which has flourished under that name since the 1950s (and under other names before that date) might well hold some promise for research focused on the Christian movement as a deviant form of Judaism and on the definition and exclusion of deviants from the early Christian communities. It will not, of course, provide a magic wand with which to solve the many intricate problems of our subject, but we can at least inquire what light, if any, it could shed on the historical processes we struggle to understand. In recent years some attempts have indeed been made to apply deviance theory to the topic of ‘the parting of the ways’ between Judaism and early Christianity, notably by Anthony Saldarini (1991) and Jack Sanders (1993). My efforts in this direction will be somewhat more modest than theirs in scope and claim but I hope still fruitful in suggesting avenues for further research. 1

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