James Still's "Critique of New Testament Reliability and 'Bias' in NT Development"--my initial response.


Section Three: My Comments 17-20


James Still continues...


Christian Trajectories

Almost from the beginning this "Jesus movement" was split among many different communities who each had their own ideas about who Jesus was and what his teachings meant to them. Over time a kerygma emerged, a message "which is proclaimed" (the literal translation of kerygma from the Greek). But it wasn't always clear what this proclamation was in the decades immediately following Jesus' death since each community enjoyed the freedom to interpret their stories about Jesus for themselves.

Comment 17

Let me interject here my radical disagreement with this position. There is almost NO NT data to support such a radical-diversity claim as this. One MUST ASSUME this first, and THEN 'arrange' the pieces of the NT along the pre-conceived lines arbitrarily constructed!

[We will get to the Bauer-guy (and his followers) in a moment, but let me give a example of how more modern research has pointed out the rather obvious 'reading back into the NT' of his reconstruction of post-NT heretical movements: "In the proposals of Koester and Robinson concerning Q and its genre, the trajectory-critical approach has a retrojectory character. It is fair to say that the approach as a whole is under the spell of Bauer's view of orthodoxy and heresy, retrojecting his picture of early Christianity after the New Testament into the New Testament era, indeed to traditions behind the New Testament documents themselves. Needless to say, that is a questionable method." (RNC:17)]

To see how 'diverse' the original communities were, we will need to look at the evidence from (1) the NT and (2) the post-NT documents of the early church (and related evidence.)

The data in the NT--with all of its ACTUAL diversity manifest--STILL manifests a uniformity and apostolic 'control' that would NOT generate such a scenario as imagined above. Consider the actual data:

  1. Every major Palestinian/Samaritan community of the 1st 30 years was founded by someone in the original circle of disciples or deacons. There is no evidence AT ALL in the NT of substantial theological disagreement between these individuals.

  2. Every OTHER major church was founded by Paul, who EXPLICITLY affirms his agreement with the other leaders:


  3. Every scrap of data we have in the NT indicates the controlling influence of the Jerusalem church, and of the Gentile mission's cooperation with its direction (Acts 15)!

  4. Even the 'evidence' that is often advanced for these 'discontinuities' is superficial:

  5. RECENT, MAINSTREAM scholarship has 'returned' to the notion of the underlying unity of the kerygma (while still allowing for diversity, though).

    For example, Lemcio [LPJG: 118ff] is representative of those who have begun to delineate the structure of the unifying (and NORMATIVE!) kerygma of the early church. He lists:

    1. God who
    2. sent (gospels) or raised
    3. Jesus
    4. A response (receiving, repentance, faith)
    5. towards God
    6. brings benefits (variously described)

    After looking at the various traditions in the NT, in light of the above structure, Lemcio concludes:

    These data demonstrate that, amid the unquestionable pluralism of the NT, there lies a unifying, kerygmatic center. It is formal and specific, rather that abstract and general, internal and native, rather than external and artificial. Among the several trajectories along which development of thought can be discerned, there remains a complementary stability. (italics HIS).
    But when we looks for this early kerygma in later, non-canonical writings, he reaches these conclusions:
    That the pattern identified in the NT continues to appear well into the second century is clear. But it is also obvious, judging by its infrequency, that there is a tapering off. Of course, the basic themes continue to be repeated in fragmentary form and elaborated upon. Yet they are not as concentrated in expression. Thus, it seems that the phenomenon of a well-defined, circumscribed outline of Christians' fundamental story belongs primarily to the NT.

    For another example, Hultgren [RNC:53]

    But there are some commonalties, and the beginnings of a normative tradition in the pre-70 era can be discerned. All three areas investigated [the churches of Palestine, the Q community, and the churches of Paul], for example, continue the Jewish heritage of belief in the God of Israel as Creator, the Father of Jesus, and the Father of humanity. All affirm the essential humanity of Jesus, on the one hand, and his role in redemption made possible by his crucifixion and exaltation/resurrection by God. All understand that a new era has been inaugurated in consequence of the cross and resurrection, attested by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. And in each case the believers constitute communities of faith that are marked by an ethos in which the individual gives himself or herself over to others in love and service, which is inspired by and modeled on Jesus' own giving himself over...Although these matters may seem, because of their familiarity, theological and ethical commonplaces, they ought rather to be considered remarkable achievements of communities of faith and life in their infancy. The are marks of a normative tradition that resonates elsewhere in the writings of the New Testament and other early Christian literature.

    So also, Martin Hengel (in New Testament Studies 40/3, 1944) rejects the "widespread opinion today" that the early church was filled with a 'multitude of contradictory messages." He affirms that there was indeed "an original unity of the church given through the Christ-event".

    [This type of argument/conclusion--working with REAL data--can be advanced from many RECENT mainstream (and often non-conservative) NT scholars today: D.A. Carson, Dunn, Farmer, Marshall, McGucken, Osborn, N.T. Wright, et. al.--see biblio in CSSG:331].]


  6. Even the entire notion of 'trajectory' is being called into question by modern scholars. Compare the words of T. Robinson (BTE:139-140):
    The golden calf of the last few years has been the use of the concept of trajectory as a means for filling in significant gaps within the history of primitive Christianity...But the problem with this paradigm is that it may misrepresent the way ideas develop or decay. The human dimension complicates the paradigm.
    He then goes on to give an example from the Reformation where that paradigm would specifically mislead a historical researcher.

    And E.P. Sanders (one of the pre-eminent modern scholars of the 1st century period) devoted a special section of his book "Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A comparison of patterns of religion" (Fortress: 1977) to criticism of this concept. One of his more basic objections is that it can be misleading (p. 23):

    A lot of things do not move in trajectories...and the trajectory paradigm may mislead one into attempting to impose sequential development where none exists.

  7. Another major issue surfaces in Jim's phrase "the freedom to interpret their stories about Jesus for themselves". The original Christian message was characterized as a 'tradition handed down'--NOT as 'stories to be interpreted'.

    Take, for example, Paul's account of the resurrection in I Cor 15. Blomberg (BLOM:108) illustrates the lack-of-freedom Paul had in the transmission process:

    Almost no one doubts that Paul wrote this letter or that he was telling the truth when he 'delivered' to the Corinthians the list of witnesses of the resurrection in verses 3-7 as one which he had 'received' from Christians who preceded him. The Greek words for 'deliver' ("paradidomi") and 'receive' ("paralambanomai") in this context are often used as fairly technical terms for the transmission of tradition. Almost certainly such information would have been related to Paul by the disciples in Damascus (c. ad 33) or in Jerusalem during his first visit there after becoming a Christian (c. ad 35).

    And Bock (JUF:80) echoes the 'transmission mentality' of the early Jewish-Christian church:

    The New Testament shares this approach to the important of what Jesus taught and how it was transmitted. I have already noted how Luke affirmed that the tradition he received had roots in those who were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (Luke 1.1-4). When Paul writes about the gospel message or the tradition of the Last Supper that he passed on to the Corinthian church, he uses the language of tradition carefully passed on: "I preached to you [the gospel] which you received (I Cor 15.1), and, "I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you" (11.23). The terms "received" and "passed on" are technical terms for hearing and passing on tradition. In fact, Paul's version of this event reads virtually the same as how Luke recorded the event (Luke 22.14-23), showing that the church "passed on" events in much the way Judaism did.

    This is not your normal 'telephone game' or rumor-mill.

    The 'stories about Jesus' were general pre-interpreted by either Jesus Himself or by the Old Testament. Differing perspectives on the meaning of Christ's death, varied from Paul's emphasis on sacrifice to Hebrew's emphasis on the Priestly work of Christ to John's theme of 'lifting up'--ALL OF WHICH are extensions/completion's of a pre-existing strand of OT prediction! The theological variety and richness of the NT is almost totally derived from the pre-existing variety and richness in the OT writings! It was not a 'freedom to interpret stories'--they were ALREADY interpreted by the theological context in 1st century Judaism!

    EVERY indication we have from the NT documents (and the early church, but we will look at some of that later) indicates that the earliest communities (1) 'received' interpretive tradition/teaching from someone inside the circle of Jesus' disciples; that (2) these churches were often 'authenticated' by apostolic visits (cf. Acts 8, esp. vs 14: When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. ); that (3) church leadership often convened to 'check themselves' against the others (cf. Acts 10-11, Acts 15, Gal 2); and that the shared material between the synoptic gospels ITSELF testifies to fact that the gospel authors did not vary the tradition much.

    It is simply false to maintain the position that the communities operated in either relative isolation, ignorance, or independence from the formative leadership of the early church.


Bauer [1934] first realized that this diversity existed throughout the early communities and regions of the Jesus movement. Bauer, (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, ed. G. Strecker, R. A. Kraft, and G. Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971; German original, Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1934; 2nd ed., 1934). Koester developed Bauer's work three decades later, calling this diversity Gnomai Diaphoroi. Today, scholars refer to the diversity of those early Jesus movements simply as "Christian trajectories." (Ron Cameron, The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Origins, in The Future of Early Christianity, ed. Birger A. Pearson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991) p. 381-392.) Fredriksen [1988] describes these communities and how their diversity played an important role in formulating the kerygma:

"[Early Christians] grouped together, preserving some of Jesus' teachings and some stories about him, which became part of the substance of their preaching as they continued his mission to prepare Israel for the coming of the Kingdom of God. At the same time or very shortly thereafter, these oral teachings began to circulate in Greek as well as in Jesus' native Aramaic. Eventually, some of Jesus' sayings, now in Greek, were collected and written down in a document, now lost, which scholars designate Q (from the German Quelle, "source"). Meanwhile, other oral traditions--miracle stories, parables, legends, and so on--grew, circulated, and were collected in different forms by various Christian communities. In the period around the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) an anonymous Gentile Christian wrote some of these down. This person was not an author--he did not compose de novo. Nor was he a historian--he did not deal directly and critically with his evidence. The writer was an evangelist, a sort of creative editor. He organized these stories into a sequence and shaped his inherited material into something resembling a historical narrative. The result was the Gospel of Mark." (Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus, (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1988) p. 3-4. )

Comment 18

Strictly speaking the approaches of Bauer, Koester, and company are NOT required by Fredriksen's statement. In her quote, there is no particular mention of 'diversity' whatsoever. So, I would like to deal which those two issues separately.

First of all, the Bauer/Koester hypothesis. In a nutshell, this view of the early church was that "heresy" appeared both EARLY and STRONG, and in many cases, PRE-dated "orthodoxy". I have already dealt in detail with this issue in my comment #14, showing heresy to be neither EARLY nor STRONG.

Let me make an aside here. It has always troubled me (with a science background) how so much of what is called 'biblical scholarship' is so uncritical of itself. In science, we are ALWAYS questioning the position we held YESTERDAY--asking if there is new data, or better ways to interpret the old data. But in such much of 'modern scholarship' in the NT/OT arena, they don't give up positions for scores and scores of years!

In the OT, this is pre-eminently illustrated by the birth of the Graf-Wellhausen/Documentary theories--which EVEN IN THAT DAY major contrary data existed but was simply 'ignored' by the zealous founders! (RKH:33-82; AOOT:17-38, chapter 6). It eventually 'catches up' (e.g. the 'control data' on much of OT literary theory NOW comes from comparison with actual ANE materials--NOT from comparison to Hegelian systems or cultural evolutionary theories!!!).

In the case of Bauer's thesis, we are faced with a similar situation. His hypothesis of 60 years ago IGNORED key elements of the data (BTE:129-161), and considerable data has come to light (in both literary and archeological arenas) documenting the "early and strong" appearance of orthodoxy (e.g. RNC:47ff; BTE:35-91). His position is called 'overly simplified' by even the editors of his 2nd edition (!), and yet his hypothesis is often assumed uncritically (by many more than just James Still!).

To illustrate how sometimes it is only the CRITICAL scholar that will 'step into the new world', let me cite the very non-traditional Robin Lane Fox, in his acclaimed Pagans and Christians (PAC:276):

In the West, in short, early Christianity has lost its history, but there is one general point on which we can be more confident. An older view that heretical types of Christianity arrived in many places before the orthodox faith has nothing in its favor, except perhaps in the one Syrian city of Edessa. In Lyons and North Africa, there is no evidence of this first heretical phase and the likelier origins are all against it. In Egypt, the argument has been decisively refuted from the evidence of the papyri. Details of practice and leadership did differ widely, but the later existence of so many heresies must not obscure the common core of history and basic teaching throughout the Christian world.
Notice that his view has assimilated the new archeological data (that tends to subdue rampant speculation) and that the author has gone 'beyond' Bauer, labeling it 'an older view'. Would that more contemporary scholars would review periodically the assumptions of their 'school' for current validity!

Now, I am not suggesting that we 're-invent the wheel' each generation, but rather that as hard data and/or control data surfaces that we re-examine our assumptions and abandon (without partiality) 'older views' that have proven to be mistaken.

Now, about Fredriksen's quote...

There are a few observations I would like to make about it.

In no way can this be taken to represent a 'consensus' of modern scholarship.

Virtually EVERY statement in this brief passage has come under scholarly attack within the last 20 years, and those statements that have NOT have been shown to support opposite conclusions from Still's.

Consider: