Redescribing Christian Origins

Redescribing Christian Origins

Redescribing Christian Origins

Redescribing Christian Origins


In this collection of provocative and ambitious essays, participants in the SBL's Seminar on Ancient Myths and Modern Theories of Christian Origins challenge traditional paradigms and reimagine the beginnings of Christian religion. Rather than assume that the gospel story has its foundation in the historical Jesus, a human encounter with transcendence, or the dramatic religious experience of individuals, contributors make use of social anthropology and propose that the beginnings of Christianity can be understood as reflexive social experiments. The first of three proposed volumes that launch a new and genuinely critical discourse about the history of early Christianities. Contributors include William E. Arnal, Willi Braun, Ron Cameron, Barry S. Crawford, Arthur J. Dewey, Burton L. Mack, Luther H. Martin, Christopher R. Matthews, Merrill P. Miller, Dennis E. Smith, Jonathan Z. Smith, and Stanley K. Stowers. Paperback edition is available from the Society of Biblical Literature (


Ron Cameron and Merrill P. Miller

Prompted by the conversations of a number of persons interested in reassessing the beginnings of Christianity, a group of scholars began to meet at the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, starting in San Francisco in 1992, to explore the prospects and lay the groundwork for a new, collaborative project devoted to the task of redescribing Christian origins. We proposed a two-year sbl Consultation on Ancient Myths and Modern Theories of Christian Origins, to be followed by a six-year Seminar, that would focus both on the diverse myths of origin found in the writings of the earliest Christians and on competing scholarly theories of explanation and interpretation. Such a bifocal approach was deemed necessary in order to explain how and why certain myths got into place as well as to clarify alternatives and points of consensus among the different methods and models that are currently being used to describe the beginnings of the Christian religion.

Scholars have, of course, been aware for some time now of the diversity of early Christianities. Nevertheless, little effort has been made to compare ancient mythmaking with modern theorizing or to understand mythmaking as a correlate to social formation. Accordingly, even though scholars recognize that the beginnings of Christianity were pluriform, most constructions of Christian origins remain the same. They presuppose at the inauguration of the Christian era a dramatic event, a kerygmatic conviction, and a linear development, based primarily on the narrative construct of the book of Acts. Three strategies have been employed in the construction of the traditional scenario of Christian origins: (1) beginning with the historical Jesus as the only—and ultimate—point of origination, (2) trajectories

See Ron Cameron, “Alternate Beginnings—Different Ends: Eusebius, Thomas, and the
Construction of Christian Origins.” in Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in
the New Testament World: Essays Honoring Dieter Georgi (ed. Lukas Bormann et al.; NovTSup
74; Leiden: Brill, 1994), 501-25, esp. 512-15 nn. 55-63.

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