How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected
Paperback: Orbis, 2016.
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Reviewed by Alden Bass
In his 1988 Louis H. Jordan Lectures, later published as Drudgery Divine, Jonathan Z. Smith argued that studies of early Christianity were hopelessly mired in confessional apologetics. Narrowing in on the study of Hellenistic Mystery Religions, he observed that Protestants were eager to critique the pagan rites, believing the “pure” religion of Paul to have been corrupted by Romish pomp and ritual. Likewise, Unitarian and Rationalist scholars, in an attempt to get at the Protestants, fingered Paul for introducing “Hellenism” into the rustic parables of Jesus. The Catholics defended all of it.
To Smith’s account we could add “radical” Christian treatments of early Christianity which have multiplied in recent years. Alistair Sykes, Andy Alexis-Baker, Alan Kreider, Everett Ferguson (to name a few) have described an early Christianity which looks an awfully lot like ana/baptist communities: nonviolent ethic, gathered-church ecclesiology, believers’ baptism, and (for Ferguson) acapella congregational singing. These scholars are not inventing things, but they are calling attention to areas neglected by earlier scholars, in the process revising the story of the earliest Christians to embrace their own traditions.