In my view, then, we all benefit from a constant return to basics. If we force ourselves to return to the basics over and over again, not to recite the catechism of received opinion but actually to rethink what we are doing and why, to kick the tires again and check the worthiness of our assumptions and categories, our work will never become old. When it comes to rethinking the human past, there will always be much to do.
Adapted from Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins (Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009)
By Steve Mason
“Remember: You never get too good for the basics.” Some such admonition will be familiar to anyone who has trained in a sport, a musical instrument, or a language. Usually we are attracted to these things because we have seen an expert at work, and we aspire to their fluency and command. We want to be able to deliver a flying side kick at will, or to make any sound we wish on the piano keyboard, or to feel perfectly at ease communicating with locals in a foreign country. But there is always a coach around to insist that you cannot do the spectacular unless you constantly train in the basics: the grammar, the scales, the posture, and flexibility and strengthening. We all expect that we will have to go through the basics at the beginning. The hard part is the realization, months or years into training, that we never transcend those basic building blocks of the art: constantly playing the major, minor, and chromatic scales; working endlessly on balance, flexibility, and form; struggling to understand a decidedly un-sexy foreign grammar.
It is much the same with academic work. Professors occasionally complain about having to teach large introductory courses year after year. But our complaints have more do with the “large” part of this, and maybe some frustration at what appears to be declining standards of literacy among new students, than with the prospect of going over the basics again each year. I suspect that many important books and articles have developed from the teaching of introductory courses. It is there that we must come to grips over and over again with the most basic tools and evidence of our disciplines and figure out the most effective ways for new students to understand their importance and learn them thoroughly. It is there that we must handle the most commonsense questions—many of them naïve, yes, but occasionally jolting us out of our entrenched ways of thinking, when a student simply asks why something is claimed to be so. Each year, as we progress with our more specialized research and writing, we return to “the basics” with new eyes, new questions, and new approaches.
Remarkably enough, this constant questioning sometimes exposes weaknesses in the foundations of what we do. This brief essay can do little more than suggest some of these questionable basics, underpinning both our methods and our categories. Hoping not to try the reader’s patience unduly, I’ll focus on two concrete categories, Ioudaismos (usually translated “Judaism”) and euangelion (usually “gospel”), and merely broach some larger issues of method in my conclusion.
Essential Categories: “Judaism”
There is no more basic category in the study of ancient Judaea than “Judaism.” It seems obvious: what defined Jews in antiquity, as now, was Judaism. Since there was a Greek word, Ioudaismos, which looks exactly like “Judaism,” some scholars have suggested that the Jews were unique in embracing an –ism, a total system of practice and belief. However that may be, scholars use the term without reservation, debating mainly whether we should speak of early, middle, or (surely not) late, rabbinic, Palestinian, normative, common, or sectarian Judaism. And should it be Judaism or Judaisms?
But there is a problem. A survey of the 9,000 or so Greek literary texts available on the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (www.tlg.uci.edu), which is comprehensive for antiquity and extends well into the Middle Ages, reveals the following. In this vast corpus, the noun Ioudaismos appears 342 times. Of these, all but 5 (i.e., 337) are found in Christian texts, and 331 are Christian and from the third century and later. The pre-third-century Christian writers are Paul (2) and Ignatius of Antioch (4). Of the 5 occurrences in non-Christian Jewish texts, moreover, 4 are in a single work of modest size, only 15 brief chapters: 2 Maccabees (2.21; 8.1; 14.38). The other is from a text derived from this one, 4 Maccabees (4.26). The Latin form Iudaismus appears exclusively in Christian authors from the third century onward, and there is no Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent: the modern term Yahadut was not yet in circulation.
Let’s pause to take all this in. In spite of the ubiquitous presence of “Judaism” in scholarship and our concern to define its appropriate use for the first century, it does not appear in non-Christian literature outside of 2 and 4 Maccabees. We do not find it in the many Greek and Latin observers of Judaea and Judaeans, in spite of Menachem Stern’s famous title: Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism. The word does not appear in the thirty volumes of Josephus, though he is much concerned with explaining Judaea and its culture to outsiders. Nor does it appear in the roughly comparable library of Philo, who writes largely for fellow-Judaeans in Alexandria but also probably for outsiders in some texts. The word is absent from all biblical and post-biblical (e.g., apocryphal and pseudepigraphical) texts, from all in-house and externally focused writing.
Without going further, we can already say with certainty that Ioudaismos was a significant part of later Christian discourse. It does not appear that it was in use among Judaeans, their Diaspora, or their observers in the first century. As for the few appearances in 2 and 4 Maccabees, we seem to have only three options. (Perhaps I am missing some.) Either (a) the author of 2 Maccabees coined Ioudaismos to mean Judaism and experimented with it, but the experiment did not catch on until the Christians revived it; or (b) it did catch on, but by some fluke it does not surface in any other literature of the period, though it was in wide use; or (c) the author of 2 Maccabees did not use Ioudaismos to mean Judaism as a system, but something else. Later authors found no comparable occasion to use it until the Christians Paul and Ignatius, whose authoritative status prompted later Christians to find ways of using it. Of these three logical options, (b) may be excluded as highly unlikely, given the concentration in 2 Maccabees and the absence from everything else, leaving us to decide between (a) and (c).
It seems to me that the evidence, from both literary context and the specific purposes of 2 Maccabees, should lead us to prefer (c). On the linguistic side, Greek –ismos nouns are deceptive. They do not indicate “isms” in the English sense of ideologies or belief systems (Anglicanism, Buddhism, atheism, Stalinism). Rather, they are the noun forms of actions described by verbs in –iζω, or –ize as we would say. So, the verbs ostrakiζω, Attikiζω, Lakωniζω, exorkiζω, and baptiζω produce corresponding nouns in –ismos, but these do not indicate systems. They are actions, best translated as gerunds: ostracism means ostracizing, Laconism is Spartanizing, and baptism is a sinking or dunking. Moreover, the cultural subgroup of these terms, such as Attikismos, Lakωnismos, and Medismos or Persismos (both = Persianizing), had distinctively negative connotations. They had become popular during the fifth century, in the political strife that racked the Greek cities, first in their struggles with Parthia and then during the Peloponnesian wars. They referred to the defection of cities or individuals to the Persians or, in the Greek wars, to Athens or Sparta. Even if such capitulation could not be avoided, it was less than glorious behavior in a society that placed a premium on faithfulness to the laws and customs of one’s own city (polis), and it was traditional for citizens to do battle on a summer afternoon with any other city that attempted to impose itself.
Ioudaismos would most naturally be understood, therefore, as a going over to or alignment with Judaean law and culture. Although this happened, and both Philo and Josephus are happy to celebrate it, Josephus even uses the verb Judaize a couple of times in discussing the background of the Judaean War (War 2.454, 463, in keeping with his habit of reusing a term within a short space and dropping it)—they avoid the more odious connotations of what Tacitus (Hist. 5.4) and others criticized: the abandonment of one’s native and family traditions to embrace those of foreigners.
Why should 2 Maccabees want to use such a term? The key seems to be that that same author is the first to use two other –ismos words, namely Hellenismos (“Greek-izing”) and allophylismos (“foreignizing”). Neither of these words refers to a system of belief or ideology, and I do not think it can be a coincidence that all three words appear for the first time in the same work. In the narrative, these other terms both refer to the activity of certain Judaean leaders, who embraced foreign Greek traditions and thereby (in the author’s view) abandoned ancestral Judaean law. Ioudaismos, therefore, appears as the counter-movement pursued by the Hasmonean priests who revolted against their priestly leadership and the Greek-Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who were behind this foreignizing. Their effort was to (re-) Judaize Jerusalem, its desecrated temple, and its leadership. It is no more surprising that Ioudaismos found no further use in either Judaean writers or outside observers than that his other coinage, allophylismos, had no uptake.
Two rhetorically able Christian authors did, however, find the word useful, both of them developing the original irony further. Both the apostle Paul (Gal 1:13-14) and Ignatius of Antioch (Magn. 10; Phil. 6, twice each) used Ioudaismos for Judaizing activities, now a bad thing, for it meant that their Christian followers from Greek cities were inclining toward Judaean ways. It is telling that although Paul devotes much space in his letters to issues with Judaean law and culture, it never occurs to him to use Ioudaismos in those contexts. Evidently, it would not do for “Judaean law, practice, and belief.” He uses it only in a letter that deals with the problem of Judaizing (Gal 2:14)—not in Romans for example.
Ignatius faced a similar problem. He plainly connected Ioudaismos with Judaizing (passages above) and went a crucial step further by coining yet another –ismos word as an antidote to such activity. For him, Christianizing (Christianismos) was the proper response to Judaizing (Ioudaismos). And that move by the soon-to-be martyred Ignatius opens the door to understanding the Christian interest in Ioudaismos. Christians went through a long period of social and political vulnerability, during the first and second centuries, precisely because they did not fit neatly into existing social-political categories. They could not say that “we are a religion” because no such category existed. They were not a nation (ethnos) with an ancestral city, temples, altars, or sacrificial cult. They were a voluntary association, but such clubs were inherently suspect and closely monitored by local authorities in the early empire, especially if they were new and involved men and women gathering at night for secretive purposes.
By the early third century, especially in such places as Carthage in North Africa, Christians were beginning to enjoy a degree of security and strength, which permitted thinkers such as Tertullian to begin reshaping their self-understanding and, along with that, their lexicon. Since he was writing in Latin, which did not create –ism nouns from the related verbs ending in –ize as Greek did, he saw a different potential in Christianism. Tertullian began to think that Ignatius’ Christianismos, though coined as a counter-activity to Judaizing, was a convenient term for something bigger: the whole Christian system of belief (i.e., Christianity). A true –ism, in something like the modern sense, was born! And this linguistic move entailed another: it encouraged Christians to reduce the established ways of the world, against which they had been disparaged for so long, to comparable and manageable –isms, for the purposes of polemical debate. And so were born “Judaism” (from the previously rare Ioudaismos, now Latin Iudaismus)—long after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 portrayed as a barren, legalistic system of belief and “paganism” (paganitas), a perverse culture of idol worship and low moral standards. Neither Judaism nor paganism had existed before in common discussion.
Paradoxically, then, it appears the Christians invented a system called Judaism, just as they invented paganism. Judaean culture on its own terms—the laws, customs, and traditions emanating from the mother-city of Jerusalem—had been something else altogether. It had been a vibrant and living civilization, which Judaean authors such as Philo and Josephus compared to other great civilizations of the time: Egyptian, Athenian, Spartan, and Roman.
Essential Categories: “Gospel”
On the early Christian side, the Greek phrase to euangelion provides a roughly parallel case of a fundamental term that might be worth rethinking. Here again, there could not be a more basic term in discussions of early Christianity. When I last checked the database of the American Theological Library Association (ATLA) in late 2007, there were more than 25,000 books and articles with “Gospel” in their titles alone, not to mention their contents. There is widespread agreement among scholars of very different approach and theological perspective that this term was the common property of all early Christians. In their diversity, those Christians may have disagreed about the nature of “the good news” (the other standard rendering of to euangelion)—some emphasizing Jesus’ wise or esoteric teaching, some his role as dying, rising, and returning savior, and others his function as Jewish Messiah—but none would have hesitated to characterize what Jesus brought or represented as to euangelion. It is also generally held that this word came to have a secondary meaning, by the time of Mark’s composition (late 60s?): a narrative of Christ’s life and work.
Scholarly debate about early Christian euangelion has focused mainly, therefore, on two issues: Where did this terminology come from? And what is a written gospel, in relation to other genres? On the former question: Was Christian euangelion adapted from the Septuagint’s cognate verb (e.g., at Isa 52:7)? Did Jesus himself use it or a related Hebrew term [e.g., besorah]? Or was Christian usage more a response to Roman imperial propaganda about good news and peace brought by Augustus and his successors? As with Ioudaismos, however, the distribution of to euangelion is striking, and this provides the first clue that our initial assumptions may lack a solid foundation. The TLG (above) shows nearly 22,000 occurrences of euangeli-forms: nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Almost all of these come from texts and papyri written by Christians after the New Testament. Let us consider the singular and plural form of the noun as well as the verb, watching especially for the preferred Christian form of neuter noun with definite article: to euangelion.
The singular neuter euangelion appears 7,367 times in the TLG corpus, but hardly at all before the Christians and never with the article. Homer’s Odyssey (ca. 8th century B.C.) has only two cases, one in direct response to the other. The context there requires the meaning “reward [or gift] for bringing a good piece of news”—in this case that Odysseus is returning from Troy (14.152, 166). For the next non-Christian use we must fast-forward nearly a millennium, to the NT’s period of composition. Josephus, writing in the 70s (War 2.420), uses the singular euangelion once, ironically, of terrible news for the Judaeans that is welcomed by a bad governor as “a good report.” He has the plural form (euangelia) in connection with Vespasian’s acclamation as emperor (4.618, 656). His younger contemporary Plutarch has the singular euangelion four times (Ages. 33.4; Demetr. 17.6; Mor. [Glor. Ath.] 347d twice). He supplies the article only once (the second example), thereby becoming the first surviving non-Christian author to write to euangelion. The plural he uses a dozen times.
Though more common than the singular, the plural euangelia is rare enough in pre-Christian literature that the examples may also be listed. Aristophanes (Eq. 647, 656; Plut. 765), Isocrates (Areop. 10), Xenophon (Hell. 1.6.37; 4.3.14), Aeschines (Ctes. 60), Menander (Peric. 993), Diodorus Siculus (15.74.2), and the Septuagint (LXX 2 Sam 4:10) have 1, 2, or 3 occurrences each—a pittance compared to the flood that is coming with the New Testament. Notice that major and prolific authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius do not use any form of this word group.
The LXX brought a new popularity to the verb, euangelizomai, as well as the new feminine singular noun euangelia—differently accented from the neuter plural (2 Sam 18:20, 22, 25, 27; 2 Kgs 7:9, for Hebrew besorah). Together the verb and feminine noun account for 27 of the LXX’s 28 cases of the word group. The plural of euangelion appears only once (2 Sam 4:10), the singular not at all.
To summarize thus far: the singular neuter form euangelion was extremely rare before the NT. Granted that most ancient literature has not survived, it remains clear that the word found no use in major and prolific authors. It is not found with the definite article, as the Christians liked to use it, before Plutarch at the end of the first century. To the extent that classical authors thought to use this root, they preferred the plural without article—just like English “good news.” This might be enough to make us doubt that the Christians were mirroring or playing against some established usage when they spoke so often and thematically of to euangelion.
The novelty of Christian usage is unmistakable. The small New Testament library includes 76 occurrences (including the long ending of Mark, at 16:15) of the neuter singular, and nearly all of these (72) include the definite article: to euangelion. Something unusual is happening here, which calls for an explanation. At about the time of the latest New Testament writings (ca. 110 CE), Ignatius of Antioch used the word group 24 times in his very small group of short letters, and 21 of these cases have the distinctive form to euangelion. After Ignatius, Christian authors of the second century continued to use the word group eagerly. Among the Greek fathers Origen, Eusebius, Cyril, Theodoret, John Chrysostom, and the Gregories use euangeli- words hundreds of times each. The pattern is clear. This language is markedly favored by early Christians from the second century and hardly used by anyone else. It was the NT collection that established this usage. The early Christians were not using common language for “good news.”
That in itself is perhaps not surprising, but now we come to the data that really upset the applecart. Within the NT collection, distribution of to euangelion is in no way proportionate. The genuine and disputed letters of Paul, although they occupy somewhat less than a quarter of the NT (about 32,445 of 138,000 words), account for 60 of the 76 occurrences of the neuter singular. Now, Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian writings to have survived, belonging to the first generation after Christ (roughly 30 to 65 CE). The Gospels belong to the next generation, from 35 to 100. Of the non-Pauline material in the NT, Mark is the heaviest user with 8 occurrences (including the long ending), all of these with the article. Thus, Paul (including pseudo-Paul) and Mark together account for fully 67 of 72 occurrences of to euangelion. By contrast Matthew, though most scholars think that its author used Mark as a source, taking over more than 90% of the earlier text and adding about 50%, has only 4 occurrences of this noun. Most surprisingly, although it also used Mark as a source, Luke omits the noun altogether and Acts has it only twice, though this “double work” accounts for nearly half (25) of the NT’s 54 occurrences of the cognate verb euangelizō. John has no trace of the word group in any form, and the hypothetical sayings Gospel Q along with the structurally similar Thomas lack the noun. Hebrews also omits the noun, though it has the verb twice.
In short, then, a triple movement needs explaining: first, why Paul and Mark seized upon the hitherto unused form to euangelion so energetically and programmatically, almost always without qualification; second, why all of the next-generation texts except for Mark drew back and avoided the term (or qualified it if used); finally, why from the third generation onward does to euangelion become a fundamental term of shared Christian discourse? It seems to me that the best explanation of the evidence is along the following lines.
It emerges from Paul’s letters that in spite of their common allegiance to Christ, different early Christian groups found themselves at sharp odds with one another, over issues of belief, practice, and not the least, leadership. Paul warned those who attempted to build on his foundation, or interfere in his work; he dismissed “super-apostles” as servants of the Devil; he felt it necessary to defend his own claim to apostleship; and he found himself in conflict at times with Peter and Jesus’ brother James (e.g., 1 Cor 1–4; Phil 3; 2 Cor 10–13; Gal 1:6–9; 2:1–21). Serious differences of opinion included those connected with the crucial question of Jesus’ resurrection, its nature, and its implications for his return (1 Cor 4: 8–21; 15:1–58).
Within this context of substantive diversity, I propose, to euangelion appears to be a term characteristic of Paul’s mission. It was something that he connected only with his own work, often in strikingly proprietary terms. He was eager to associate his own converts and followers with to euangelion as a shared treasure, but he became notably reticent to associate Christ-followers of other persuasions with it—not because they were unworthy, necessarily, but simply because they were different and not part of his mission, which was called to euangelion. This would explain why only Mark, of the second-generation narratives, featured this term in strategic places (at the beginning, middle, and end): Mark is a biography of Jesus with strong Pauline emphases. Matthew, Luke, and John (as Q and Thomas), by contrast, took markedly different perspectives on Jesus and his significance, and so they dropped what they recognized as Pauline language almost entirely. From Acts and Ignatius’ letters onward, however, a movement was underway to fuse the sometimes contentious traditions that had flourished in the first two generations. To euangelion was from then on stripped of its distinctively Pauline connotations and became the common property of all Christians.
Here I can offer only the briefest justification for this proposal. A preliminary point needs emphasis, however. Scholars tend to treat all forms of euangeli- words as more or less the same. But the distribution patterns we have observed do not support that equivalence. This is clear in English. The plural without article, “good news” (like Greek euangelia), is common in normal speech. Someone got a promotion or won a contest or became engaged to be married: that is good news! But the singular neuter noun with a definite article, the form prevalent in early Christian texts but not found in non-Christian literature, is different. It means something more like The Announcement or The Message. Imagine that someone at the office began to say that she was following The Message, was planning to devote the weekend to studying The Message and hoping to conduct her whole life according to The Message. We are no longer talking about “good news,” but rather something very specific—and weird-sounding to those who do not share the devotion. I shall use The Announcement, rather than “the gospel,” to try to recapture the distinctive sound of this phrase.
Paul’s proprietary usage of to euangelion appears throughout his writings. 1 Thessalonians, his earliest writing, is the earliest known Christian text. In its mere four pages or so, it uses to euangelion six times, defining the term in the process. At the first occurrence, Paul makes it proprietary (1 Thess 1:5): “our Announcement came to you not in word only, but also in power….” Happily, he goes on to remind his audience what it was that he announced to them on his recent visit (1:9-10): turn to serve living God, trust in him, and wait for his son (Christ) from heaven, who will rescue (or evacuate) his followers from impending divine wrath. While awaiting this salvation, Paul his followers are to live pure, blameless lives (4:1-8), so that they will be ready “at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:23-24). Paul had left the impression that this saving event would come very soon, so soon that they are troubled by its delay, and he now continues in this vein (1 Thess 4:13, 17; 5:1). This apocalyptically charged message is evidently the principal content of The Announcement.
By the time he writes 1 Corinthians, Paul has to face divisions among his followers, some of whom have since his visit opted to follow other teachers. Some defectors have come to think in terms of resurrection as an internal spiritual transformation, rather than being disposed to wait for a physical end of the age and resurrection of the dead—the core of The Announcement (4:8-13; 15:12-51). In 1:17, Paul contrasts himself with the interloping teacher(s) by asserting that he alone was dispatched to declare The Announcement. In 4:15-17, he uses patronage language and treats his converts as children: “I became your father in Christ Jesus through The Announcement!” and he will send his faithful child Timothy to remind them of “my ways in Christ Jesus.” In Chapter 9, he mentions The Announcement half a dozen times (9:21-23): he will do whatever it takes, he says, to win people to The Announcement. In 1 Cor. 15.1-2, he speaks of “the Announcement that I announced to you,” using the cognate verb to drive home the uniqueness of the message.
Paul’s brief letter to the assembly at Philippi has nine references to to euangelion. Again the proprietary tone is unmistakable: the Announcement began with Paul. He thanks the Philippians for their “partnership in The Announcement from the first day until now” (Phil 1:5) and recalls the beginning of his own travels as “the beginning of The Announcement, when I left Macedonia . . .” (Phil 4:15). Since he is now in prison, whether The Announcement will continue to flourish or not is an open question because it is all tied up with his personal fate (1:19-26). He is in prison for the defense of The Announcement (1:7) and confident that his imprisonment will serve to advance it because his guards have now heard of it and most of his associates have been strengthened through his predicament (1:12-14). Timothy is his son in The Announcement (2.22), and Euodia and Syntyche have also striven together with him in The Announcement (4:2-3). The same tone comes through in Paul’s letter to Philemon: he is in custody because he is in the service of The Announcement (Phlm 13).
In Galatians, Paul denounces his impressive opponents, declaring with deliberate paradox: “Even if we, or a messenger from heaven, should announce to you an Announcement contrary to what we announced to you, let him be cursed!” (Gal 1:8). His personal investment as the authentic bearer of The Announcement is clear, as in 1:11: “The Announcement, which was brought by me….” In 2:5, having claimed that he got The Announcement directly from Christ, having been set apart for it from birth (1:15–16), when he finally visited the Jerusalem apostles after fourteen or seventeen years (depending on how one construes the Greek), he did not yield to any pressure to change The Announcement. Again, it appears clearly as his project.
Finally, we turn to Romans. This is the only one of Paul’s undisputed letters written to a Christian group that he did not establish. This is where we should be able to see his proprietary use of to euangelion most clearly, on the hypothesis that I have put forward, and that is what we find. Although euangeli-words appear 12 times in Romans, they never once refer to what the Roman Christians already believe or what they have been taught by other Christian leaders. The bond that he shares with his own converts in The Announcement, to which he constantly adverts in his typical letters, cannot and does not exist in Romans. It is only something he hopes to create when he visits them. It is almost humorous to see how he struggles to describe what the Roman Christians already believe. At 6:17, he gives thanks that they, once slaves to sin, “have become obedient from the heart to the sort of teaching you were given”—not to The Announcement. Similarly at 16:17, he warns them to watch out for schismatics and scandals, in opposition to—not The Announcement, but—“the teaching that you learned.”
In this letter to Christians converted by others, therefore, Paul wastes no time in introducing himself (1:1) as “called as apostle set apart for an Announcement of [or from] God.” In 1:13-16, he makes the stunning statement, which has baffled commentators (who assume that to euangelion was common property) that he would like to bring The Announcement to them because he is not ashamed of it. But who would ever suggest that Paul should be ashamed of The Announcement? This is not a prospect he raises at all in his confident letters to his own groups. This whole letter of Romans, however, his longest letter, is a defense of The Announcement. This appears to require that it was something peculiar to Paul and his “assemblies” (another distinctive term of his mission). Paul defends The Announcement against accusations that it not only displaces but also maligns the Judaeans, Moses, and Torah. He is at pains to show, in response, that he fully recognizes the claims of scripture—which he quotes an unparalleled 60 times in this letter—and that his Announcement does not disdain God’s promise to Israel or to Abraham or denigrate Torah observance (Rom 2:25; 3:1; 4:1; 7:1, 7; 9:3; 11:1, 26). His opening sentence even asserts that The Announcement was promised long ago by the prophets (1:1-2).
Evidently Paul considers The Announcement to be his special project. Note especially 2:16, recalling to his apocalyptic scenario: “on the day when God judges the secrets of human beings, according to my Announcement, through Jesus Christ.” At the closing of the letter (16:25)—which may belong after 14:23 according to some manuscripts—he commends his readers to “the one who is able to strengthen you, according to my Announcement and the proclamation of Jesus Christ….” Consider also 15:15-20. Just as in Galatians, The Announcement is something that Paul alone has been charged with disseminating among his gentile assemblies. He has spoken boldly because of his calling in the service of The Announcement of God. And so he—no other leaders come into it—has “fulfilled The Announcement of Christ” from Jerusalem to Illyricum (15:19). Rather than saying that he brings The Announcement where other people have not done so, tellingly, he brings it where Christ has not been named (15:20). What others declare, though they teach about Christ, is not his Announcement, which Christ gave him alone.
If this seems obvious from the evidence, why is such a view not common? Most scholars continue to see Romans as the flagship of Paul’s corpus, or as his most mature statement, and not something written in unique circumstances: they tend therefore to take the sharp edges off Paul’s language by harmonizing Romans with his other letters. Phrases such as “my gospel” must indicate only Paul’s personal way of describing the “good news” shared by all Christians. But that is not what Paul says, as far as I can see: it fails to take account of the sharp difference in tone between Romans and letters addressed to Paul’s own followers. Whether or not the disputed letters of Paul are genuine, they seem to share the clear understanding that to euangelion was the catch-phrase of Paul’s ministry. Paul claims that “I, Paul, became [The Announcement’s] minister” (Col 1:23) and speaks of “The Announcement of the glory of the blessed God, with which I was entrusted” (1 Tim 1:11). The author of 2 Tim 1:10-11, says that Christ “illuminated life and immortality through The Announcement, for which I was positioned as herald, apostle, and teacher,” and he admonishes Timothy to remember Christ “according to The Announcement of mine” (2 Tim 2:8).
If we pursue this line of argument, it makes sense that Mark would feature to euangelion, uniquely among second-generation authors. Among the differences of perspective that characterized early Christian groups, Mark has roughly the same positive and negative sensibilities as Paul. Positively, this is an apocalyptic narrative, giving story form to Paul’s vision of imminent cosmic turmoil and evacuation of the faithful. This is how the kingdom of God, and thus salvation, will arrive. At 9:1 Mark’s Jesus looks ahead to the end of the age: “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” The major block of Jesus’ instruction in this narrative is the apocalyptic discourse of chapter 13, which promises an imminent end in dramatic terms, describing great cosmic upheaval as The Announcement is conveyed to the world, before the chosen are evacuated to heaven (13:13, 26-27). Negatively, Mark is relentlessly harsh on the very things that had posed challenges to Paul’s Announcement: the Jerusalem apostles (Jesus’ original students), status claims made by or for Jesus’ brothers, and the claims of Judean law on followers of Christ. Mark 7:19 famously declares the dietary laws of the Torah finished and all foods clean.
It is no surprise, then, that the author not only titles his work The Origin of the Announcement (1:1), but even puts The Announcement—unqualified—in Jesus’ mouth as the content of his own teaching. After his immersion (1:14-15), Jesus is said to have gone about “declaring The Announcement” and calling people to trust in it. At 8:34-35 and again 10:29, Mark’s Jesus anticipates that his followers will suffer persecution and loss “for the sake of The Announcement.” At 13:10 Mark’s Jesus even insists that The Announcement must be proclaimed to all the gentiles before the end comes—just as Paul’s letters show him setting out to do. When the woman anoints Jesus in Bethany just before his death, Jesus remarks that her act will be remembered whenever The Announcement is proclaimed throughout the world (14:9). This author has a profound investment in The Announcement and largely shares Paul’s outlook on following Jesus.
Matthew, Luke, Q, Thomas, and John, by contrast, incline towards views of allegiance to Christ that share much more with Paul’s antagonists—those confronted in 1 Corinthians 4 and 15 or in Galatians. Matthew’s title, “The Book of the Genesis of Jesus, Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham” (1:1), immediately places it in a different world from Mark. This author will emphasize scrupulous fidelity to Judaean law (5:17-21) and have Jesus oriented toward “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6). It also places Jesus’ family and students on a much higher plane, dropping Mark’s claim that his family thought him insane (Mark 3:20–21) and, instead of leaving the dim-witted apostles with Peter’s denial and nervous breakdown, has him pointedly declared the foundation of the “Church” (16:16-18). Such a story is very different in emphasis from The Announcement, and therefore the author drops or alters this language when he meets in his Markan source. Whereas, for example, Mark had introduced Jesus as proclaiming The Announcement (unqualified), Matthew postpones this summary reference to 4:23, after the author has given full play to biblical citation and allusion. And now he has Jesus talking instead about “the announcement of the kingdom” (as also at 9:35; 24:14)—the “kingdom of heaven” being Matthew’s preferred way of describing Jesus’ teaching.
Space does not permit a survey of the other substantial second-generation texts, such as Luke, John, Q, and Hebrews. We may simply observe the hard facts that (a) they take a very different approach from Paul and Mark to understanding Jesus’ significance and (b) they avoid any mention of The Announcement. This coincidence is very difficult to explain if to euangelion was common early Christian property. It is easy to explain, however, if everyone still understood this language to be distinctively Pauline. Changes come with the Book of Acts and the letters of Ignatius, both perhaps from the early second century (there is much debate about the date of Acts). The portrait of the first generation in Acts is famously difficult to reconcile with Paul’s letters, written during the period being described. One of the most striking differences is that this author gives the gentile mission to Peter, though in Paul’s letters it is clear that he sees himself as its unique apostle. It accords with this change, which seems part of an effort to smooth over the sharp conflicts that appear in Paul’s letters and bring everyone under the unified authority of the Jerusalem apostles, that Peter also now presents himself as the one whose mouth was chosen by God to bring The Announcement to the gentiles (Acts 15:7). This decisive change opens the way for all later Christians to speak of The Announcement as their shared project.
Conclusion—and the Problem of Method
In this essay, I have tried to provide sufficient evidence for my proposition that even the most basic categories that we use every day in the study of ancient Judaean culture (“Judaism”) and Christian origins (“gospel”). If you do not agree with my particular proposals for rethinking these terms,that is fine: perhaps you will take this as a prod to come up with a better explanation. My general point is simply that it is always worth reevaluating even—or especially—the most obvious-seeming categories.
The same is true of our methods, though that question is too big and abstract for adequate treatment here. This problem came home to me when I was a doctoral student in Toronto, and we were required to attend a regular seminar on work-in-progress. At the same time, I was beginning to attend meetings of professional societies. These were all good experiences, but they confused me in an unsettling way. One presenter would offer a “structuralist” interpretation of Galatians 2. Although I had some idea of the lingo, I did not really understand what the point was. Another offered a rhetorical analysis drawing from Graeco-Roman handbooks. Although I hadn’t read those at the time, I could grasp the idea. But next time it was billed as an anthropological or sociological approach to the Gospels. And just when I thought I was perplexed, one presenter began his session with the remark that “As historians, we need to look at…” whatever his subject was. Historians? And anthropologists? And sociologists? And philologists? Some of my friends also considered themselves theologians. My problem was that I thought I should be good at something, by the time I received the Ph.D., and it was certain that I was not going to become expert in all of the disciplines I watched parade before me. And it was clear that one could not become good at something by reading a book about it. One would need to train in it, practice its methods in a variety of contexts, and explore in some depth—to be able to give an account of—its underlying rationale and logic and criteria.
What should a body do? I decided that, since my subject dealt with human actions in the past, whatever else it was it was ancient history, and so I had better learn something about general historical method. That became my main academic goal: to work out what it meant to do history and then to integrate everything I did in relation to Judaea and Christian origins into a broader historical picture, using the same kind of method that I could apply to other aspects of the ancient past and to other ancient evidence, especially literary evidence. A secondary goal was to figure out how to incorporate textual interpretation and philology within this project of history.
But it seems that religious, biblical, and Jewish studies, perhaps more than most fields, attract scholars of widely different methodological background: theologians, historians, classicists, rabbinic scholars, and so on. There is nothing wrong with that, but it means that we need to be self-conscious and explicit about our methods so that others may know what we are trying to achieve and how we intend to do it. Only then will our colleagues know how to evaluate our research against appropriate criteria. It seems, however, that we often pass over the “basics” of building our methods from the ground up in order to work at what seems a high level.
Two examples may illustrate what I mean. First, what does it mean to interpret or explain a text? There is no area in which I have seen more confusion. I am not insisting here that there should be a uniform answer to this question, but only asking that scholars are clear about it when they make their contributions. On the one side, in both classical and biblical studies there is a long tradition of explaining texts according to what they arguably used as sources and as models or influences. Once we have explained what Livy or Luke or Josephus did with his sources, we have explained the text. But what does this tell us about the author’s aims? Is the text meant to be a medium of communication? If so, with whom? Did the author’s audience know about his sources in order to make the same conclusions that we draw? Usually not. So, should interpretation have something to do with what an author wished to communicate to a particular audience? On the other side, many sophisticated analyses of texts now abhor the notion of an author’s “intention” as naïve, but then they use such terms as “what is going on in the text”—and offer arguments as to why we should accept that this is “going on.” But what does this mean: that the author intended it? No, not intention! What then? Should some ancient audience have understood that this was “going on”? If not, what are we doing when we interpret a text? Again, I am not here supporting any particular answer to that question, but only asking that it these “basics” be explicated.
The other example has to do with the broad category of history. Here too it seems there is much confusion—or perhaps only I am confused. Scholars make all sorts of claims about the past, often declaring them probable or similar, but without really explaining what they mean. Do they consider themselves to be doing history? Many do not, but if not, by what method are they producing arguments about the past? How do they understand the relationships between the real human past, the surviving evidence, and the value of particular hypotheses about that past? How do they understand the logic of historical argument? The whole question of the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls is an example of the problem of perplexing method. Scholars—and plenty of amateurs, encouraged I suspect by the evident arbitrariness of much scholarship—put forward all sorts of hypotheses about Essenes, Qumran, John the Baptist, and early Christians. Typically, these are based on the observation of certain parallels between two or more groups, or two or more texts. But where is the method, the systematic inquiry that considers the big picture and all possible explanations of such evidence? It seems to me more or less completely absent. That would be no great problem if it were recognized as a problem, and scholars were willing to back away from zeal and certainty—which strangely seem to attend this area of research more than most others.
In my view, then, we all benefit from a constant return to basics. If we force ourselves to return to the basics over and over again, not to recite the catechism of received opinion but actually to rethink what we are doing and why, to kick the tires again and check the worthiness of our assumptions and categories, our work will never become old. When it comes to rethinking the human past, there will always be much to do.