We all have our personal story. And it is just one part of the bigger story of our family, our tribe, our nation – the things that have shaped us. Institutions, too, have a life of their own – and their own story. Where did they come from? What made them as they are? Religions are such. We need storytellers with long memories. And, if we get really serious about understanding all this, we need good historians. Christianity has the story and the historians who, over the last couple of centuries, have become better at their game.
Christianity did not start out as a religion. It began firstly a movement within Judaism. There was the pre-existing story of Israel. Israel’s story had two strands – one establishment, with temple and priesthood; the other prophetic. The prophets were the critics of society. As the establishment got set in its ways, the prophets wanted constant review to keep true to their original purpose. They troubled the establishment.
Jesus was such a prophet. His focus was on the best way to live to keep in tune with God – to make God’s Reign a reality. As he gathered followers, both of himself and his way, the establishment got his movement in its sights and we know how that ended up.
But that was only the beginning of a new story. The movement grew and Jesus became the focus of its story. Then, following the tradition of Israel, they started to write. Paul was the first writer – letters of advice to cells he had set up. Then Mark created a new form of literature – the gospel. His purpose was to bolster his community which was struggling against opposition from outside and disintegration within. Then Matthew and Luke copied that style and wrote their own version of Mark’s story, focussing on the needs of their particular communities. Finally, John wrote his version for his community whose preoccupations you can glean if you read the text closely – if do a critique of the text.
The first thing you need to do in critiquing the text is to discern why the writer composed it. Each writer has his own reason for writing. This, in turn, affects the way he writes. The gospels, for example, are anything but re-plays of what was said and done. Discerning the writers background, biases and purpose clarifies your understanding of the text.
For the believer, the scriptures are sacred texts, but they remain texts none the less. Around the beginning of the 20th century scripture scholars started to look at them with an eye to their history. Who wrote them? When? In what social context and to what purpose? This new approach was called the historical critical method. Used skilfully, it gives new insights into the text and its context. Raymond E Brown was a brilliant student and researcher. Using this method, he showed us that early Christian communities varied tremendously. He expounds his case in “The Churches the Apostles Left Behind”. His insights into another unusual community in which the Fourth gospel was written gave us “The Community of the Beloved Disciple”.
The historical critical method made scripture scholars into historians. They saw that the texts themselves were dynamic. Original texts were edited, modified and added to, documenting an equally dynamic movement. The Jesus movement was growing and always adapting to its changing context.
The organization of the Jesus movement changed dramatically when the Roman Emperor made it the state religion. Bishops got political power. Ruling replaced pastoring as their primary duty. Constantine prized order and wanted a unified voice on belief. Hence the early councils of the Church. The result? – a doctrinaire organization replaced communities of shared faith and mutual support. The period from 4th to 8th centuries is known as Late Antiquity. And who better to show us what happened than a historian of Late Antiquity?
The doyen of this field is another Brown – Peter Brown – Emeritus Professor from Princeton. His first book – a biography of St. Augustine (d. 430 CE) – showed, amongst other things, just how different Augustine’s Christianity was from that of the early Jesus movement. The hope and optimism of the imminent arrival of the Reign of God was overshadowed by the Fall and Original Sin, making salvation a shaky future possibility. Fearfulness played a part in the rise of the cult of the saints and asceticism such as that of the desert hermits of Lower Egypt. In “The Body and Society” he showed the origins of devotion to virginity, chastity and sexual renunciation – all accidents of history; all part of the big story of Christianity. Brown teaches us of “The Rise of Western Christendom”, “Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity” and how wealth played out in the early Church in “Through the Eye of a Needle”.
Christianity, both formed by and forming society has been anything but static during the whole of its history. Yet churchmen have always claimed that it was. The motto of the leader of the conservative faction at Vatican II, Cardinal Ottaviani, was Semper Idem – Always the Same. They claimed that you cannot change God’s revelation. The unspoken implication was that they would tell us what that revelation is.
Again, a historian to the rescue. John O’Malley SJ. He is as good a teacher as he is a research historian. His books on the Councils of Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II are monumental. His most recent “When Bishops Meet” shows how Church change happens despite efforts to disguise it.
So, the story continues. It is a troubled one for the Christian Churches today. That, too, is part of the big story. Historians are our best friends helping us to make sense of it all. We are part of making the story. Becoming amateur historians will help us make sense of it.
Eric Hodgens is a retired Melbourne priest who “writes a bit”.