Re: Alpha Christianity at SBL
Gordon Raynal has just mentioned the Jesus Seminar meeting at SBL this Nov,
with its celebration of Bultmann. That reminds me of another event at SBL,
which I venture to mention. I first give a little background.
JSem and Bultmann are a very logical pair. Bultmann more or less establishes
the view of the Gospel material which JSem takes as a starting point. That
view is that all the Gospels are late, none has any standing as an
eyewitness account, and all therefore stand roughly equal as sources of
Dominical Sayings. Then all the sayings in the Synoptics can be put in a
single pile and stirred well, and from that pile modern individuals can pick
what seem to them to be possibly genuine in origin.
That view is risky on at least two counts, both of which require careful
reading of the texts, but what else are we here for?
(1) The line in Mk (13:14) which leads to its post-70 or near-70 dating is
more naturally read as an allusion to Antiochus IV Epiphanius, who had
desecrated the Temple in an earlier time (the quote, which Matthew following
Mark makes explicit, is from "the holy prophet Daniel"), and thus a
reference to the threatened desecration of the Jerusalem and other temples
by Caligula in 40. Since Caligula died early the following year, and the
threat at once disappeared, Mk 13:14 as a refuted prediction could not have
been written later than 40. When a Gospel wants to point to the destruction
of Titus and not the threatened desecration of Caligula, it does not do what
Mark does, and it does not do what Matthew, following Mark, continues to do;
it does what Luke does at the corresponding passage (Lk 21:20), and refers
explicitly to armies surrounding Jerusalem. The Gospel writers surely had
their limitations, but they were probably not so dumb that they could not
tell an idol from an army. It then follows that not only Mark, but Matthew
who fails to update Mark, are both pre-70 documents. Luke, which in its
present form follows Matthew, is then the first post-70 Gospel. Matthew is
still pre-70, and Mark, coming well before Matthew, is significantly
earlier. This puts Mark at minimum back into the lifetime of Paul, and
establishes Mark as a source of much more value than Bultmann allows.
(2) Mark itself is stratified. The Caligula reference, which Mark is at
pains, in 13:14, to have properly decoded by his readers (sic), is itself in
a late layer of the Mk 13 Apocalypse, as Taylor showed in an appendix to his
commentary. Then Mk 13:14 itself was written in the year 40, and there is
material in Mk 13 which must be still earlier, since that prediction was
inserted into it. This puts a certain amount of Mark back into the 30's,
long before any witness of Paul. There are also the widely recognized pair
of predictions, Mk 14:28 and 16:7, where the following verse talks past the
verse in question, and responds instead to the verse preceding it. Other
examples abound, and need not be repeated here.
The implication of all this is that much of Mark is early, and part of it,
the part into which the rest has been interpolated, the ground narrative of
Mark, is *very* early. This is a different picture than the one on which
Bultmann relied. If we rely instead on Mark, we get a picture of Jesus
different from the usual one (which is heavily weighted toward that most
effective of all Second Tier Gospel passages, the Sermon on the Mount). That
Markan Jesus is a figure which gradually develops, and the various
interpolations in effect mirror those developments; Paul's Jesus represents
a later stage of that development.
At its early end, the stratified Mark links up with several other documents
widely recognized as "primitive" (meaning, very early): the Epistle of
James, the Didache, the pre-Pauline hymn embedded in Philippians 2, and so
on. That is, if we take only the earliest Mark as our basis, we find a
surprising amount of consistent documentation in extant texts, some of them
canonical or embedded canonical.
Jesus did not found, but did give rise to, the earliest Christian movement.
To the earliest stage of this movement, the earliest Mark and other
acknowledged "primitive" documents are consistent witnesses. This
Christianity, not surprisingly, differs from the theologically and
administratively more developed Christianity of the second half of the 1st
century. To this earlier version, I have given the name Alpha Christianity.
For a summary of these findings, see
There has been a certain amount of interest in this result, among scholars
and among what might be called the larger Christian public. For some years
now, we have sponsored an Alpha Christianity meeting at the annual SBL, not
a panel, but a time when interested persons can get together, raise
questions, and make suggestions for future research. This year's meeting
will be at 8 AM on Monday 19 November, in the main convention site; exact
room to be announced (or will be searchable sv Alpha Christianity on the SBL
listing, when SBL finally gets the bugs out; be sure to check "Include
That is the announcement. Thanks for the opportunity to make it.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Almost needless to say, if anyone will be making an SBL presentation
compatible with, or of direct interest to, the Alpha Christianity subject, I
would be glad to be told of it, and will give it suitable notice and
publicity on our web page and elsewhere.