On: ARONSON 7 (W)
It might seem from the previous notes that, despite a certain vagueness in its
originally published form, there may be something useful at the core of the
Aronson DDJ/Gospel parallels. On that possibility, I offer herewith what is
meant to be the last in this series of notes.
ARONSON 7 (W)
On the assumption that, at one or more of the Aronson points, something from
outside is indeed coming into the thinking of Very Early Christianity, I have
for convenience given the name W to whatever was its local and proximal source.
As in all cultural contact situations, it is to be expected that we will see
the source tradition - as it might be known AT the source - garbled, excerpted,
adapted, and generally transmuted in the process of being incorporated into
other thinking. That is more or less what we do see in the cases so far
examined: some striking similarities of phrase, along with some significant
difference of background conception.
1. The DDJ component of W is the only one examined in the previous notes. I
here expand a little on it, for those not previously closely aware of it.
DDJ is an interesting text, and on reflection, one likely to be productive of
material useful to the Early Christians. It was at its core a Chinese
meditation group, using a breath control technique originally imported (with
the usual adaptations) from India. Its emphases included the usual mystical
downvaluing of sensory input, and of pleasures and possessions in general. It
did not envision salvation in anything like the Christian sense of the term,
but it did look to contact with, and for some practitioners, also escape into,
a larger world (the exact nature of whose largeness can here be left vague, but
the word "cosmos" might not be too misleading). At the same time, the DDJ text,
soon after it began to appear AS a text, also developed a strong interest in
statecraft; that is, in the management of "kingdoms." Here is another point of
possible affinity with the Early Christians, who also looked to a more
ideal "kingdom" to which they alone held the key.
The idea of weakness as a positive virtue (and even as a tactical strength),
and the idea of humility, including returning good for evil, are strong and
early in the DDJ, and sufficiently prominent that they arouse a contemptuous
response from the Confucians and the other more conventional statecraft
thinkers of early China. That is to say, these doctrines are not esoteric (and
thus unavailable to nonmembers); rather, they have been highly public since
they were first put forth (in the 04c and early 03c), and were publicly debated
at that time. We thus have here not an esoteric teaching, but a public program.
So successful was that program outside its home state (Lu) that the text, while
it was still being composed, was taken to Chu and, once suitably extracted and
adapted to local Chu tastes and conditions, was used as part of the
instructional materials of the tutor to the Heir Apparent of Chu. The DDJ, in
this and other ways, quickly established itself as one of the most popular and
successful texts of classical China.
We may thus not be too surprised to find a number of recognizably DDJ ideas
turning up in what we have so far defined as the W portfolio.
But there were very probably others, and I continue by identifying some of the
2. Probably also present in that portfolio, though not dealt with by Aronson,
are Mician ideas. The Micians, whose public pronouncements begin at an even
earlier period than those of the DDJ (beginning of the 04c, with proto-Mician
positions attested in the 05c), are the followers of the wholly unknown but
definitely sub-elite Mwo Di. They represent the commercial sector of classical
Chinese society: the well-to-do householders whose ideology was formed partly
on the wish for a stable society (including opposition to war), and partly on
the protocol requirements of trading across cultural boundaries. From the
latter need, they developed a completely lateral ethic, emphasizing universal
love (love that is not restricted to one's family - a point on which they
bitterly differed from the elite Confucians). The love ethic attested in
several early Christian communities would have seemed normal, or anyway
paradigmatic, for the Micians. So would their ethic of civic subordination, a
topic to which Paul devoted several impassioned paragraphs (with parallels in
sayings attributed to Jesus as early as the later layers of Mark), and to which
the Micians devoted a whole series of closely argued essays. The DDJ, like the
primitive Buddhism in which its roots seem ultimately to lie, is concerned
primarlily with the individual, and secondarily with the state, but not much
with the community. The community side of things is extensively addressed by
Further, given their commercial connections, the Micians, far more than the
Dauists, are likely to have been the carriers of their own and any other
Chinese ideas to points westward. They were the traders, or were in contact
with the traders, and it is by trade that ideas of this kind normally move
across distances. We may note that Hillel, who is anecdotally associated with
some of these ideas, is sometimes called "Hillel the Babylonian" in deference
to his wider than usual cultural acquaintance, and for that matter, that the
story in Tobit in which one of the W ideas early appears, involves a journey to
a great city. The sense of trade contact, in persons or texts with which W
ideas are associated at the other end, is palpable. Paul himself, a great
traveler, and one who (unlike Jesus) did not shun the major towns, was an
artisan, just as Peter was a commercial fisherman. Such people are likely to
have been, from their pre-Christian days, associated with the movement of goods
over distances. I think I already mentioned Levi the Disciple, whose original
calling put him athwart one trade route, and gave him the responsibility of
taxing what went by him. Here is yet another personal point of contact with the
route which is far the most likely one for the transmission of W-type ideas.
3. I have earlier pointed out that the most perplexing of the Lukan parables,
wrongly called the Unjust Steward (it is rather, the Canny Steward), becomes
transparent and wholly relevant to Luke's narrative intent at that point, if it
is read as a garbled version of a postclassical Chinese story from the early
02c. These things too were widespread in Chinese culture and acquaintance; like
the DDJ, we have archaeological evidence of the popularity of that story genre.
There is thus nothing against the idea that they would have been among the
cultural equipment, the maxim store and anecdotal baggage, of traders working
4. One of the stories near the Canny Steward in Luke, the strange tale of
Lazarus, has also been thought to derive from an exotic source, in this case
Egypt. I mention this as a reminder that the trade routes, by land and sea, do
not run exclusively west. There are also those that run north.
5. And even among those that run west, not all originate in China. There is
also India, home of Buddhism and (later) of Jainism, and justly famous as "the
Mother of Story." Nothing mentioned above amounts to a religion in the strictly
apposite sense of the word, but religion is among the things that India has
been exporting for centuries, along with spices and other commodities. The
whole of the overland caravan route from China was through Indianized cities
and oases, and there were also important routes through Egypt and Arabia. Paul,
to mention no one else, spent considerable time (in ways that seem to be still
mysterious) in "Arabia," where again he would have been anything but isolated
from all that was passing along the arteries in the world's body.
I hope in the above to have suggested that the formation of early Christian
thinking took place not in a vacuum, but in the midst of a tumult of exotic
notions, gathered from afar and concentrated at the trade junctions, whether at
the modest Capernaum level or at the great centers such as Babylon or Edessa or
Antioch or Alexandria. It is known, or on good evidence suspected, that the
early Christians proselytized in most of these places. My final suggestion is
that the exposure may have been a two-way affair.
I thus think that the seminary student whom I began by describing was missing
something, not to be more interested than in fact she was at the possibility of
non-Christian elements in the formation of Christian doctrine. I venture to
think that her personal lack of interest, and her institution's lack of
curricular awareness, in these matters is a serious impediment to eventual
understanding. Christianity conquered by being universal in tone and message.
Did it possess that universality from the outset? Or was it in part an acquired
trait, not only through adaptation to local circumstances like the death of
Jesus, but through affinity with traditions arising in not dissimilar
circumstances, and available locally in convenient lore form?
It is a mistake, albeit a mistake universally made in academe, to think that
a "discipline" contains within it all it needs to solve the problems to which
it addresses itself. As well attempt to explain a mosquito without reference to
the animals, including sometimes myself, from which it draws life and blood.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst