My Favorite Books

The Walking Drum
Ender's Game
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Curse of Chalion
The Name of the Wind
Chronicles of the Black Company
The Faded Sun Trilogy
The Tar-Aiym Krang

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Review: After Jesus, Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements

After Jesus, Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements After Jesus, Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements by Erin Vearncombe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book comes out of the same organization that gives us the Jesus Seminar (Westar Christianity Seminar) where scholars attempted to identify the Real Jesus within the Gospels with mixed reviews (frequently drawing criticism from the more fundamental wing of Christianity).  This book follows that process with the authors/contributors stating at the very beginning that “One of the core contributions of this book is its rejection of the master narrative.”  So buckle up … controversy awaits us.

What we find over twenty chapters is how [these] scholars put together current research and understanding of the first two centuries after the crucification to build a narrative that an incredibly diverse movement that challenges orthodoxy in 6 areas:

1.    They resisted the Roman Empire by invoking the compassion and mercy of God, while contrasting God’s perfect kingdom with the cruelty and domination  of Rome despite having relatively little power themselves (Not sure how this challenges the prevailing theories, but there you have it)
2.    They were extremely egalitarian with gender roles with women taking a more active leadership role in many of the groups (some even cutting their hair and dressing like men).
3.    They lived in “spiritual” families or communities centered around their beliefs and practices, often disregarding blood family ties.
4.    They were aligned with Israel in nearly everything that they did, regardless of where they were; frequently picking out the traditions of the local jewish communities and adding to them
5.    They had a variety of organization structures, with little to no central control … which translates to a very diverse set of beliefs, many of which would become heretical and lose out to the coming orthodoxy (This is the best part)
6.    Their tradition were mostly transmitted orally; however, they slowing developed what became canon along side the same process where the Jewish canon was created.  (Again … not sure how surprising this really is).

To support these “discovers”, the book opens with a discussion on where we get the word ‘Christian’ and what it actually means.  While this was interesting, I am not sure it deserved all of the ink it received.  After that, it talked about the power and violence of the Roman Empire … again … I don’t see many folks arguing against this, so the big reveal here seems to be that the relatively powerless underclass that made up the bulk of the communities was very passive-aggressive in their resistance to Roman power.  You will find some controversy in the proposed development of the communal meals that would become the Christian communion as it is then also contrasted with common Roman practice with respect to libations for the Emperor.  

It was not until Part II that I found more interesting and potentially surprising information as the book lays out the various characteristics of the Christian Communities (aka Clubs).  There are some terms used that you need to pay very close attention to as they are using them for a specific meaning that is not at all common today, so the potential for misunderstanding is high.  Here we see the Jesus communities experiment with gender roles, national allegiance and family organizations, with the later including a brief exploration of the traditional family/households and how radically different these new "communities" were.  Part III moves into early heresies and how they were ultimately suppressed ... starting with [The Myth of] Gnosticism and its incorrect use to categorize and dismiss a significant number of early Christian writings [such as nearly the entire corpus of the Nag Hammadi documents) ... there by giving a false impression of early uniformity [or orthodox] that did not actually exist.  Next we re-examine Paul ... who was not so influence during his life time as he would become during the establishment of orthodox belief.

Over all I think this brings important scholarship into the understanding of how we got here and I would recommend reading it with an open mind.  Be prepared to be challenged; however, it is important to remember that this is just one view within a wide field and it may not be the end all to how we understand our story … even if you don’t buy into what is being presented here, it should make you think … 

Table of Contents

1.    The Experiment
2.    If Not Christian; What?

Part I: Living with the Empire
3.    Engine of Empire: Violence
4.    Gospel of Empire, Gospel of Jesus
5.    Violence in Stone
6.    The Deaths of Heroes

Part II: Belonging and Community 
7.    Testing Gender, Testing Boundaries
8.    Forming New Identities through Gender
9.    Belonging to Israel 
10.   Experimental Families 
11.   Join the Club
12.   Feasting and Bathing

Part III: Real Variety, Fictional Unity
13.    Inventing Orthodoxy through Heresy
14.    Demolishing Gnosticism
15.    Paul Obscured
16.    Jesus by Many Other Names

Part IV: Falling into Writing    
17.    Hiding in Plain Sight
18.    Romancing the Martyrs
19.    Better Than a New Testament
20.    Conclusion

I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

#AfterJesusBeforeChristianity #NetGalley.

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My Ratings Explained ...

  • [ ***** ] Amazing Read - Perfect story, exciting, engrossing, well developed complex characters, solid plot with few to no holes, descriptive environments and place settings, great mystery elements, realistic dialogue, believable reactions and behaviors; a favorite that I can re-read many times.
  • [ **** ] Great Read - Highly entertaining and enjoyable, exciting storyline, well developed characters and settings, a few discrepancies but nothing that can’t be overlooked. Some aspect of the story was new/refreshing to me and/or intriguing. Recommended for everyone.
  • [ *** ] Good Read - Solid story with a 'good' ending, or has some other redeeming feature. Limited character development and/or over reliance on tropes. Noticeable discrepancies in world building and/or dialog/behavior that were distracting. I connected enough with the characters/world to read the entire series. Most of the books I read for fun are here. Recommended for fans of the genre.
  • [ ** ] Okay Read - Suitable for a brief, afternoon escape … flat or shallow characters with little to no development. Over the top character dialog and/or behavior. Poor world building with significant issues and/or mistakes indicating poor research. Excessive use of trivial detail, info dumps and/or pontification. Any issues with the story/characters are offset by some other aspect that I enjoyed. Not very memorable. May only appeal to a niche group of readers. Recommended for some (YMMV).
  • [ * ] Bad Read - Awkward and/or confusing writing style. Poor world building and/or unbelievable (or unlikeable) characters. Victimization, gaslighting, blatant abuse, unnecessary violence, child endangerment, or any other highly objectionable behaviors by Main characters. I didn't connect with the story at all; significant aspects of this story irritated me enough that I struggled to finished it. Series was abandoned. Not recommended.