Ancient Christian Origins: A Heterogeneous History [transcript]

Ancient Christian Origins: A Heterogeneous History

Podcast with William Arnal (19 October 2020).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Andie Alexander

Audio and transcript available at:


Early Christianity, New Testament, History, Identity, Origins, Historical Jesus, Q, Gospel of Thomas

Sidney Castillo (SC)  0:03 

And now, we’re back again it’s a Religious Studies Project podcast, and this time I have the pleasure to have with me Professor William Arnal, from the University of Regina in Canada. I will introduce you very briefly. William Arnal is Professor of the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Regina, Canada. He obtained his PhD at the University of Toronto, with a dissertation on a thorough examination of the sociological conditions of the Q source. His research is focused on ancient Christianity, New Testament scholarship, and the politics of religious studies. He has dealt extensively on ancient Christian sources such as, Q, the Gospel of Thomas, the Pauline letters, among others. Welcome, Professor Arnal, to the Religious Studies Project.

William Arnal (WA)  0:49 

Thanks for having me.

SC  0:52 

It’s great. Now we don’t get the chance to have discussions about Christianity and Christian origins. And it’s actually the first podcast we have on the subject in all of the previous ones that we have had so far. So, we aim to explore a little bit more of this area of scholarship with you.

WA  1:12 


SC  1:14 

So, we’ll just dive right into the questions. And firstly, to try to situate our listeners and also the interview here for the community questions, I would like to ask, how can we approach the study of ancient Christian origins from within religious studies?

WA  1:32 

It’s an excellent question and a fairly complex one, I think. The first thing I’d stress about this is, is that there are—that the New Testament, early Christianity, the documents that comprise the New Testament, are human, cultural artifacts that can be approached in a wide variety of different ways. And there’s no one of them that’s the right way. Traditionally, though, the documents have been studied, because they’re part of the Christian canon. And so, the study of these documents has been, basically, a kind of religious practice. That is to say, Christians study the New Testament, because according to Christian doctrine, the documents of the New Testament are authoritative for doctrine and morals, they may view them as divinely inspired, they may view them as literally dictated by the Holy Spirit, word for word. But right across the range of Christianity, they’re regarded as important documents for theological reasons. This means that the study of the New Testament has, traditionally for the last 2000 years, basically, been a religious practice. It also means that there’s no real—there’s no need for people who approach the New Testament this way to justify what they’re doing. They already have a reason for doing it. These are important, God-given documents that human beings ought to attend to very carefully. If you don’t approach the text from that perspective, which is a perfectly legitimate perspective, it’s even, in fact, I would say, an academically respectable practice. And I know a lot of people say, you know, theological approaches aren’t academic, I think in the strictest sense of “academic,” that is in the sense of learned study, theological approaches are very often extraordinarily academic, extraordinarily, intellectually sophisticated. So, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this. But if you’re approaching the documents without the assumption of Christian theology with a—from without a religious commitment to Christianity, then the first thing I think you have to do is ask yourself, “Why am I studying these documents? What are they important for?” In other words, if you take a religious studies approach—that is, an approach that is looking at these documents without the theological suppositions of Christianity, that’s looking at them from without—you need to make them data for some larger question. Does that make sense?

SC  4:21 

Yes, very, very much. And that’s, like, a grounded entry to what we want to address here.

WA  4:27 


SC  4:28 

Because usually there is this overlapping, of course, as you mentioned, of theology and religious studies, or within any other kind of disciplines, that’s religious studies or study religion for that matter. And it’s usually a difficult thing to try to differentiate, which are the assumptions—which are like the default concepts that we are going for addressing are very specific phenomenon, I think, specifically for Bible studies or like New Testament sources that this is a very, very legitimate issue.

WA  4:56 


SC  4:56 


WA  4:57 

And, and the fact that these documents have been a center of academic, personal, religious—all kinds of interest—for so long, gives you the impression that there is something intrinsically important about them. Right? But I think it’s incumbent on somebody who’s approaching this from a religious studies perspective to say, “Why are they important? What are they important for? What patterns of human behavior? Do these documents illustrate? What human questions do these documents allow us to answer?” And I think that what’s different, what distinguishes a religious studies approach—and here, I suspect I am very much at odds with many of my colleagues in the field—but what I think distinguishes a religious studies approach to these documents from say, from other non-theological approaches, such as a historical approach, a literary approach, an anthropological approach, is that religious studies is implicitly, at least, comparative.

SC  6:02 


WA  6:03 

It seems to me that—and I’m a devotee of Jonathan Z. Smith on this point—I think that what religious studies does best and distinctively is comparison. And so, I think there should be much greater emphasis on comparison, or at least comparability in a religious studies approach than in other approaches to this material. I actually have a story that, that kind of illustrates this: I was—I had helped organize a conference once many years ago, I won’t tell you where, when, because I don’t want to people to recognize themselves in the story. But, but I organized a conference many years ago, and it was on early Christianity, and we had a lot of really quite brilliant speakers. And at the end of the conference, I was giving a sort of response to, to what had, you know, sort of, been thrown up in the air at that conference, and what the papers have been about and so on. And I said, by way of criticism, that I thought that the papers were, in general, arguing for positions about early Christianity, that the authors would never dream of arguing for, say, the ISIS cult, right?

SC  7:28 

Oh wow!

WA  7:29 

Or some, any other ancient form of religion. And they—the presenters got quite angry about this—and they said, “When you organized the conference, you never said that we needed to compare stuff.” And my response was, “I, I’m not criticizing you for, say, failing to compare Jesus or Christianity to the ISIS cult. My problem, what you’ve argued, is that there is no possible comparison between what you’ve said about early Christianity and the ISIS cult. And if you’re saying things about early Christianity that you would be unable to say, that you would regard as ridiculous if you were to say about the ISIS cults, then you’re, that’s like kind of intellectual malpractice.” Right?

SC  8:22 


WA  8:23 

Even, even beyond actually engaging in comparison, I think it’s really important for scholars of early Christianity, who imagined themselves as studying “religion,” to be careful not to say things about the early Christians that they could not comfortably say about other religious traditions, past present, culturally similar, culturally dissimilar, whatever.

SC  8:50 

Exactly. I think that’s a very, very good insight.

WA  8:53 

Yeah. I also think, though, the comparison can be, can be misused, and I mentioned Jonathan Z. Smith a few minutes ago. One of, one of Jonathan’s great contributions to the field was the book Drudgery Divine, in which he showed that comparison has been undertaken historically, in the study of early Christianity, in a, in a deeply dishonest and duplicitous way. So, it’s not like comparison is a magic bullet. Comparison can be used for fundamentally dishonest intellectual aims, right. Showing the superiority of Christianity, showing how Christianity is incomparable to anything else.

SC  9:35 


WA  9:36 

But I think the principle of comparability, at least, is a central piece of approaching these documents in a, in a non-theological way, and particularly in a religious studies way.

SC  9:49 

Exactly, yes. So indeed, there is no sui generis aspect of Christianity within Christianity that is, like, allows you to put forward differently from other traditions of the time as well. So, it needs to be in dialogue or contrasted with the context and also with other countries religious from the time in a methodological exercise, at least.

WA  10:10 

Yes, absolutely. Although I push that even a little bit further, I think. And, and I actually this, this pertains to another question that I think you’re going to ask me. I think that your, your last remark focuses a great deal on comparability and context, that is to say, comparing Christianity to cultural forms that were present in the actual social and historical environment in which Christianity arose. And that is, you’re absolutely right. 100% central. But I also think that we need to ensure—again, I think, for the sake of intellectual honesty—that the kinds of explanations we apply to early Christianity are generalizable in the, in the strongest sense. That is to say, if we’ve got different historical circumstances, say, between UFO abduction stories, and early Christianity, right—these are completely different things, completely different cultures, separated by millennia separated by oceans. There is no way that that UFO abduction stories had any influence on early Christianity.

SC  11:50 


WA  11:51 

But I think that, that one is guilty of a kind of intellectual malpractice, if you attempt to explain early Christian material in ways that are fundamentally different from the way that you would attempt to explain UFO abduction stories.

SC  12:10 

Oh, I see.

WA  12:12 

Right? They, they’re, they’re—the ways that we approach human doings ought to be consistent.

SC  12:21 


WA  12:22 

Is my point.

SC  12:23 

No exceptions?

WA  12:24 

Yeah, I think so. Right? Well, you know, exceptions for what the children did was loved ones, right.

SC  12:30 


WA  12:30 

I’m going to explain my kids very differently than I explained the rest of the world. But aside from, you know, special exemptions like that. Yeah, I think, I think if, if I view contemporary politics a certain way, if I assess my neighbor’s actions in a certain way, if I assess my colleagues’ actions in a certain way, then those kinds and ways and reading the human world ought to also be the ways that I read the human world of early Christianity.

SC  13:02 

This very good remark, and I think it’s sets very broadly, we’re going to delve more into what you have research on. For this. I would like to move to the next question…

WA  13:12 

You bet.

SC  13:12 

… specifically, to ask you, in your book with Russell McCutcheon, The Sacred Is the Profane, you have a chapter titled “The Origins of Christianity Within and Without Religion: A Case Study.” What you discuss on the necessary demystification of religious phenomena as a condition for a more comprehensive assessment and comparison of New Testament kind of sources and the Christian tradition as a whole? Could you elaborate on this, which you have done, and tried to get geared towards that chapter specifically, which I’ve had the pleasure to read, by the way?

WA  13:44 

Thank you. Yeah, it seems to me that the—I’m kind of—when I talk about mystification, I’m borrowing a lot here from Bruce Lincoln and actually, going even further back a little bit, from [Ludwig] Feuerbach, who’s kind of a patron saint of mine. But the idea of mystification is pretty simple. The, the kinds of things that we tend to call “religion” routinely invoke entities who don’t obey the ordinary laws of nature: God’s devils, spirits, angels, what have you. Since religious behavior and thought concerns itself with these kinds of beings, it’s it very often—I and I won’t say that this is, you know, universally the case, I won’t say all religion does this—but it seems to me that it is very typical, the stuff that we call religion, that it appeals to this kind of supernatural activity as its basis. And so, it’s situates its authority outside of this world. It situates its authority outside of the normal chains of cause and effect that we use normally to, to assess non-religious things. In a way, this links to what I was just saying, right? The ways that I assess my neighbor’s activity or, you know, contemporary politics, typically are naturalistic, they don’t invoke explanations from beyond this world, or any such thing. And often religious behavior and religious artifacts, documents, and so on, do invoke some authority that’s grounded in chains of cause and effect outside of nature. If we’re approaching this material from a religious studies perspective, then we’re looking at religious artifacts as human artifacts. And as a result, we have to put aside any kind of explanations that rely on extra-human agents or non-natural chains of cause and effect. This sounds really easy, right? Take the story of Jesus walking on the water, right? Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee out to boat to his disciples, right? If I try to explain that story, as follows, Jesus was the son of God and he walked on the water because he was capable as the son of God of suspending the ordinary laws of nature, and the Gospels record this episode because it actually happened that way. Then obviously, I am not demystifying. But mystification, the mystification, internal to the Christian tradition is so deep and pervasive that it finds other ways of working itself out that aren’t quite as blatant but are just as mystified. There are scattered throughout extensively historical works on the origins of Christianity, their appeals to charisma, appeals to conversion, right? And the enthusiasm of conversion, appeals to belief, and so on. And all of these are actually part of the rationalizing structure, internal to early Christian discourse, that have been, sort of, shorn of blatantly supernatural elements, but still absorbed, sort of, structurally, I don’t think I’ve been very clear here. Let me give you an example. I think that one of the most, sort of, appalling tendencies—that’s overstated—one of the most problematic tendencies in the field of Christian origins is, is the tendency of so many scholars to get really hung up and write thousands and thousands and thousands of pages on the so-called historical Jesus.

SC  17:49 


WA  17:50 

And the, the enterprise of the historical Jesus, for those of the audience who aren’t aware of this, is basically the recognition that the Gospels are filled with all kinds of supernatural details, and that as historians, we can’t take these details, you know, as well, gospel truth. And so, it’s really an exercise in, in sort of, paring away from the Gospel stories, the, the implausible features of the stories, and seeing what’s left, and trying to make a coherent picture of Jesus, the human being as he really was 2000 years ago, before Christians overlaid all these theological elements on top. This exercise originated as, as part of an effort to critique dogma. So, its, its origins are very critical. But really, since the 19th century, the historical Jesus scholarship has really been, in my view, a theological enterprise. And what I think is the mystification central to it is the idea that what happened, what actually happened in the life of the human person, Jesus, is incredibly, intrinsically important. But it’s only important if Jesus is the son of God. Okay?

SC  19:18 

Exactly. (laughs)

WA  19:19 

And in terms, and in terms, so the mystification slides in, even in the action of paring away all these supernatural details. In fact, it seems to me that the reason that so many scholars have written so many pages—I mean, we’ve got multi-vol… you know, seven volume works on the historical Jesus each 1000 pages, right—penning down exactly what Jesus said and did. There is behind this, the assumption that Jesus is the cause of Christianity.

SC  19:51 


WA  19:51 

But terrible historical assumption. You can’t assume that at all. The cause of Christianity is the appropriation of the figure of Jesus, subsequent to Jesus death. So, what’s, what’s happening here is, is that you’ve got people incorporating a fundamental, theological, mystified assumption that Jesus is the source of Christianity. Well, that’s a doctrinal claim. It’s a theological claim. But it’s incorporated in this extensively historical work. So, I think that it’s, it’s actually a serious sort of struggle to try to pare these things out to try to guard against incorporating Christian theological suppositions in one’s historical work. Does that make sense?

SC  20:42 

Makes absolute perfect sense. And it’s very, very interesting to see how, like, is not itself fact that Jesus exists or not, that could be even irrelevant to the question. But the fact of the matter of how people created the discourse around the figure of Jesus, and it was not only a very specific set of people, there were three distributed throughout the region in the Levant, for that matter in a person’s specific context in history. And I think that’s what you addressed in your research, when you write about how there was these Jesus people.

WA  21:14 


SC  21:14 

For Christianity, yes?

WA  21:16 

Absolutely, absolutely. And in a sense, Jesus is, is Jesus himself, is, kind of, irrelevant. I believe that there was a historical person, Jesus, on which the gospel stories are based, but my partner does not. And she’s a scholar of religion as well. But she’s, she’s not a scholar of early Christianity. And we go around and around on this question. But what I think is interesting about it, is that the answer to that question makes almost no difference for how either of us understands the origins of Christianity. She could be—I think she’s wrong—but she could be 100% right, and it wouldn’t change much of anything about what I say about the subsequent development of Christianity. Right? That I think indicates how little Jesus himself, as someone other than a literary character, how central he isn’t to the unfolding of Christianity.

SC  22:25 

Exactly, exactly. And this is the—yes, you can go on…

WA  22:30 

Yeah, I mean, I think what we’ve got here is, is—I think this relates to what I was saying earlier—what I think is crucial here is that whatever approach we take to making sense of the developments within early Christianity, they have to be approaches that we would feel comfortable applying to human behavior writ large. And again, I see this as a kind of ethical principle in scholarship. This is a categorical imperative of historical or anthropological work, that, I think, that the principles you use to make sense of this material have to be the same general principles that you use to make sense of other human behavior.

SC  23:14 

Exactly. I think that’s a very, very positive claim. And in order to go further into where you have done research—now speaking of Jesus in the Gospels—I would like to ask the following question. In relation to the previous things we have been addressing, and for to for introducing us more to your work, could you share your findings from the non-canonical gospels in the form of the Gospel of Thomas and Q? I know that’s a big thing to unpack there—we need like, at least an hour to address each source specifically—but for the listeners to have, like, a, kind of, takeaway idea. Who was this? First of all, what this is? And second, how you have been working with it?

WA  24:00 

Okay, yeah, and you’re right, I could talk for hours about this stuff, I really enjoy it.

SC  24:07 


WA  24:07 

Q is a reconstructed source, so we, so we don’t actually have any ancient manuscripts of Q. But it’s—but the idea of Q is drawn from the fact that the first three gospels in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, show a literary relationship to one another. That is, they weren’t written by eyewitnesses, they, they were not written independently of one another. What happened, instead, is that the Gospel of Mark was written first, and then Matthew and Luke, both revised Mark. And we can tell from the way that they changed mark, that they revised Mark independently of each other. That is, Matthew didn’t have—Matthew had Mark in front of him, but he didn’t have Luke. Luke had Mark in front of him, but he didn’t, he didn’t have Matthew. And it so happens that, in addition to all the material that Matthew and Luke share from… that they both got independently from Mark, there’s about 200-230 verses that they share with each other that aren’t in Mark. And since they worked independently, Matthew couldn’t have gotten those verses from Luke, Luke couldn’t have got them from Matthew. And they all seem to these verses, they have common themes, they have a common style. So, since the middle of the 19th century, scholars of this material have argued, convincingly in my view, that Matthew and Luke made use of a second source, in addition to Mark—a second written source—that was a collection of Jesus’s sayings. And since it was German scholars who originally made this inference, the document in question is called Q, which is an abbreviation for Quelle (source). And so that’s where Q comes from. What is Q? It’s, basically, a list of sayings of Jesus. And there is a strong presentation here of Jesus as a teacher of wisdom, a teacher of morals, a proclaimer of the kingdom, when people will be nice to each other for a change. And also, a bunch of apocalyptic threats for people who aren’t nice to each other for a change. And there are remarkable absences in Q as well. We can reconstruct Q pretty well from, from by comparing Matthew and Luke, and the material that they share shows very little interest in the death of Jesus, certainly, very little interest in the crucifixion, very little explicit discussion of Jesus resurrection, a very little, in fact, no references, no secure references to Jesus as the Christ—that’s a title that’s not used in Q. So, this is a quite interesting, probably quite early document that presents Jesus in a way that’s rather different from what we get in Paul and the canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

WA  27:13

The Gospel of Thomas is, in some ways, quite similar to Q, except we do have an ancient copy of it. The Gospel of Thomas is, is a collection of sayings of Jesus. There, there’s a conventional numbering of the sayings, that splits them into 114 sayings. Every saying is there’s no real narrative flow in the Gospel of Thomas. Each saying is just introduced with Jesus said, and then there’s a saying. He said, and then there’s a saying. His disciples said, and Jesus replied, and then there’s a saying. And it just goes on like that for 114 sayings. The Gospel of Thomas, for those listeners who are scratching their heads and going, “Why have I never heard the Gospel of Thomas?”, is not in the canon of the New Testament. It was not deemed as authoritative, as early Christians were sorting out which documents made it into the New Testament. And it was lost to us until well, really, until the 20th century. And tiny fragments of what were later identified as the Gospel of Thomas were dug up in an Egyptian, an ancient Egyptian garbage dump in ancient Oxyrhynchus, dating from about 200, and a little later, but we didn’t quite know what they were, they were just these little papyrus fragments that had, you know, little snippets of Jesus sayings on them. But when in 1945, a cache of what are usually described as gnostic documents were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Among those documents was a Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas. And what makes Thomas so exciting is, you know, we’ve got the Q, right, which is this hypothetical source we, we think it exists, we can reconstruct it pretty securely, but some people cast doubt on it, and it sure would be nice to have a copy in our hands. And Q appears rather unique in early Christianity in that it has this view of Jesus as a teacher, not the Christ, not to focus on crucifixion, not to focus on resurrection. And then suddenly we find the Gospel of Thomas and bang. Here’s an actual ancient document that presents Jesus as a teacher that doesn’t focus on the narrative of Jesus life, but rather on what he has to say, that doesn’t present Jesus as the Christ, that doesn’t focus on the crucifixion and the resurrection, and so on. So, it’s this document that is very, in many respects—it’s not identical to Q by any stretch of the imagination—but in many respects, is similar to Q. And this is very exciting.

WA  30:11

So that’s my sort of sketch of those two documents. Now what I’ve argued about them in the case of Q is picking up—and this was my dissertation way, way back in the 1990s. But picking up from a suggestion made by John Kloppenburg, who has got to be the world’s foremost Q scholar, I pursued the idea that Q was written by Galilean village scribes. And, basically, what I tried to do in my analysis of Q was track the social and economic circumstances that would have made the production of it—that would have inspired the production of a document of this sort. And what I argued is that, basically, what we have here are a bunch of village scribes—I guess I should explain what a village scribe is. We have evidence in antiquity of, sort of, low-level bureaucrats, first in the Ptolemaic Empire, that controls Egypt prior to the Romans taking over. And then in the Roman Empire as well. These low-level village clerks, who are, basically, bureaucrats who execute land titles and marriage contracts and this sort of thing. And I argued in my dissertation, which eventually became the book Jesus and the Village Scribes, that these, these scribes were in a transitional situation in a situation in a in a situation of flux, that was making them uncomfortable. And that the reason for this had mainly to do with the building of two large administrative centers in the Galilee, Sepphoris and Tiberias, that were built basically to facilitate the extraction of economic surplus from the hinterland. That is, they were built as basically consumer cities to draw wealth out of the countryside. And one of the effects of this—and, and I did not argue that this suddenly made the peasants destitute, and they all got together and had a, you know, socialist revolution or anything like that. I argued that the direct effect on the peasantry was, was incremental and minimal. But the people who are most disturbed by this in a Galilean village setting, were village scribes, who had operated even as low level bureaucrats with a degree of autonomy, and that the building of these cities put them into an administrative hierarchy in which they were quite subordinate.

SC  33:07 

Uh huh.

WA  33:08 

And so, in response to this, these scribes came up with a sort of ideological program that promoted immediate—that is, and I mean, this immediate in the literal sense, unmediated—village reciprocity, right, people should not engage with these extended administrative structures, they should just be nice to each other, nice to their neighbors, give without seeking return, and so on. And that this social program was grounded in a particular vision of God as local. So, the religious ideology here is basically the, the claim that God lives right here in your village, act accordingly.

SC  33:56 


WA  33:57 

And, and that ultimately, this ideological vision can be understood in terms of, of these scribes being—this is a you know, fifty-cent word that I used in my dissertation—deracinated, uprooted, from their previous administrative autonomy that they had before the building of the cities. I actually think there’s a neat parallel here. I think you can watch across the ancient Near East, over a very long period of time, evolution in notions of God as the evolution, as in parallel with the evolution of the state. So, gods are initially local, as large national states build up the gods move to the capital city, right—YHWH lives in Jerusalem, Marduk lives in Babylon, so forth. And eventually in the, in the era of large multi-ethnic empires—and I’m thinking from the Persian period onward—there is an increasing tendency to make the gods celestial, to remove them and make them more distant and more subject to mediation, right? I can’t talk to God face to face, I can’t even go to the capital city and talk to them in the temple, I have to talk to them through a series of intermediaries. Just like if I, you know, I, my village is ruled, ultimately, through a whole chain of intermediates, going back to the emperor who lives in Antioch or Rome or wherever that particular empires quarter. What I see in the, in the case of Q, is, is that, basically, they’re trying to reel God back down to earth. And they’re doing so precisely as a kind of imaginative repudiation of the social structures that led to God being cast up into the heavens in the first place. That is social structures of locating the village within a network controlled by empire.

SC  36:09 

The ideology that emerges from that is a reflection of the conditions—labor conditions that we were facing that time.

WA  36:16 

Actually—that’s, I’m really glad you said that, because I don’t… I I’m actually not… Yes, you’re right. That is, this ideology is very much a response to those conditions. But I don’t want to say it’s a simple reflection of those conditions. Because the actual conditions that these people are operating on is, are conditions of empire. They want something different, right? They don’t want to be in these in these chains of hierarchy. And they don’t want to occupy the lower levels of these chains of hierarchy. And so, in fact, they’re creating an ideology that doesn’t mirror the social circumstances they live in, but that opposes it. That is friction with it. Right? So yes, it’s a product of those social circumstances. But it isn’t a simple reflection.

SC  37:10 

Exactly. It’s a position in any case.

WA  37:13 

Yes, yes, exactly. Now, as for the Gospel of Thomas, and here, I want to throw out a reference to a colleague of mine, Dr. Ian Brown, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto PhD program. And, and Ian’s work on Thomas is, is, runs very parallel to the kind of stuff that I’ve been doing on it as well. But he’s done so in, I think, more depth than I have. But, basically, my, my reading of Thomas, is the Thomas is the product of the extension of low-level literacy in the Roman Empire, especially among urbanites. So, the Roman Empire, and, and this is reflected in what I was just saying the Q, the Roman Empire is a bureaucratic empire, it makes use of writing as an administrative technique. And as a result, at least some facility in reading and writing filters down to sub-elite levels. So, there was once upon a time when writing was largely the preserve of an elite, social elite. But it becomes somewhat more diffused in the Roman Empire—nothing, nothing like the literacy levels we have today, not even close. But still, in urban contexts, there’s this increasing facility with the written word. And it’s a facility among people who, who lack the social prestige, the elite status that is associated with writing. Now writing because of its elite focus has prestige associated with it. And so, what I argue with the Gospel of Thomas is that we’ve got low level people who want to—who have developed low levels of literacy, right, they don’t have a particularly high status. But they want to tap into the prestige associated with literacy and they want to imitate the practices of cultural elites, who during this period, many of whom are engaged in the learned interpretation of obscure documents.

WA  39:47

So, there’s all kinds of parallels to this in, in this particular culture, we have stories in Plutarch, who is a second century writer who describes these symposia, in which learned elites sit around eating dinner, and interpreting obscure sayings of Pythagoras. So, Pythagoras said all these weird things like don’t eat beans. And so, so these elites sit around the dinner table and say, Well, what could Pythagoras have possibly meant by “don’t eat beans”? So, they come up with these interesting interpretations of what this means. So, what I argue is that the Gospel of Thomas is the product of people who want to engage in this kind of behavior, but they don’t have “ownership”—and read ownership and scare quotes here—but they don’t have ownership of any obscure ancient documents that they can do this with. So what do they do? They invent one. And so, for, for whatever reason, they, they pick up on the figure of Jesus as the teacher of esoteric, oriental wisdom, and they impute a series of obscure sayings to him. And seriously, some of the things in the Gospel of Thomas are really quite obscure. I’m actually sitting at my desk. Let me just pull one out here. Let’s see. “‘The Kingdom of the Father,’ Jesus said,” this is the Gospel of Thomas, number 97. “Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of the Father is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. When she was walking on a distant road, the handle of the jar broke, and the meal spilled behind her on the road. She did not know it. She had a problem. She had not noticed the problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.” And that’s the end of the saying. It’s like, ah, what?

SC  41:49 

Almost like parábola (parables).

WA  41:51 

Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. But the thing is, in the canonical gospels, the par—the parables are generally explained or include details that make their explanation obvious. So, for example, in the Gospel of Mark… Yeah, so, so in the Gospel of Mark, chapter four, we have, we have the parable of the sower. And Jesus tells this parable, it’s supposed to be really mysterious, and the disciples are all scratching their heads. And then the text goes on, Jesus says, “Well, you idiots, I’ll tell you what this is about.” And he explains it. Those explanations are absent from the Gospel of Thomas. So, what I think we’ve got here is, basically, a document that was created for the purpose of imitating highbrow literary practices of interpretation of obscure documents. In both approaches, these are, in some ways, quite different takes on the two documents—they are different documents. But both of these approaches take seriously the fact that Q and Thomas are documents, that is they are literary productions. So, the purveyors of both of these documents are people who are literate in a, more or less, basic way. And their literacy is fundamental to understanding their actions in producing these documents.

SC  43:12 

Exactly. Thing is a very, very well run a discussion of how to situate this, both of these sources, so, so we can understand them. And I think now we are running short amount of time, I think we have one last question, which will address this fact of invention, a further issue that you spoke of. And then we can move to the concluding remarks. This last question is, in your journal article, “The Collection and Synthesis of ‘Tradition’ and the Second Century Invention of Christianity,” you discuss about the second century invention of Christianity, that would pave the way for proceeding institutional claims of Orthodoxy. What is important to understand on this of the sociological context for words, these sources emerged, as well as the diversity and conflict interests for which they were written.

WA  43:59 

Yeah, I would say that they, that the point of that article was, was intended to be more negative than positive. (laughs) It seems to me that the single most important sociological fact to understand for the origins of Christianity is that there was no such thing as Christianity in the first century. And when I say that, I don’t mean that Paul, or Jesus didn’t exist. And I don’t mean that the documents of the New Testament weren’t composed in the first century. Some of them certainly were. What I mean is that there was no single institutional or even conceptual entity, as Christianity that accounts, in a unified way, for those people and those documents, right. I think there was a Paul, there was a Jesus they lived in the first century. Documents like the Gospel of Mark and 1 Corinthians were written in the first century, but we cannot speak coherently of these documents as “Christian,” and this is not just a terminological point. Right, all of our evidence in, in my view, and this, there are some technical issues here. But all of our evidence, in my view, for the term cristianos (Christian) or even more, so cristianismo (Christianity), all of the evidence dates, the earliest of dates from the early second century. There is no first century use of that terminology. But that doesn’t mean we can just take another word, say, call it “Jesusism,” or something like that and apply it to the first century.

WA  45:34

The problem isn’t just a terminological one, it’s a conceptual one. There is no single institution or idea of a unified Christianity in the first century. What this means is that there is no necessary unity among the New Testament artifacts, right, the first century new, a new testament artifacts. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, for example, which I think was written in the first century, and the Gospel of Mark, which I think was written in the first century, are separate and distinct things that need to be explained in separate and distinct ways. And that in turn means that there is no single one sociological factor that explains everything. If we want help with 1 Corinthians, then one particular element of the social context might help. So in the case of 1 Corinthians, I think you’ve got the sociological factor that matters is the existence of urban centers, that are populated by uprooted people of mixed ethnicities from throughout the empire that I think is the sociological key to understanding 1 Corinthians, in the case of the Gospel of Thomas, I think, which may or may not be first century, but in the case of the Gospel of Thomas, I think we’re dealing with a different sociological factor that’s important. That’s the expansion of literacy. In the case of the Gospel of Mark, yet another different sociological factor, the catastrophic effects of the, of a brutal war, the Jewish war of 66 to 70, I think, is the primary drive or context for the Gospel of Mark. So, the point is, there’s no single explanation for first century Christianity, because there was no first century Christianity. And what we have instead, is in the second century, people who are groping in the direction of a Christian identity, right, and, and I don’t want to be understood as saying that suddenly, magically, in the year 100, Christianity appeared. But what I think we start to get, start to get in a process that isn’t complete for a very long time, and maybe is never complete.

WA  47:45

But what we start to get in the second, in the second century, is an interest in or an active effort to create an idea of this unified thing that, that draws together, separate literary expressions, separate social contexts, separate sets of ideas into one overarching big tent, that can be thought of as a single thing. I’m not entirely sure why that happens, but that’s when we start to see it happen. And part of that process involves, then, what—and I’m borrowing language here from Willi Braun, who I think has borrowed it from someone else—but what I think we see here is what Willi refers to as the “retroactive confiscation” of other cultural products [Braun 2020: 63 and 83]. That is, people in the second century, who are starting to think of themselves as this thing, Christian, look back, they see these existing artifacts, say, one of Paul’s letters, and they say, this is about me. This is Christian. And so, they take those things, and they, they make them bear on their own identity and collect them together and say, these are all about this one thing. They should be read together, and they should be read with reference to us—us being the second century intellectuals who are engaged in this process. Right. But, but this is retroactive, right? So it’s very important that these people did this. It, I think, accounts for the survival of the New Testament documents into the present day. So, it’s crucially important historically. But if we want to understand say, 1 Corinthians, on its own terms, we have to disentangle it from that second century appropriation.

SC  49:47 

Exactly. So, this is like a not kind of identity process formation, but institutionalization company, when the facts already happen.

WA  49:57 

That’s right. That’s right. Absolutely.

SC  50:01 

Well, I think we are running out—we are out of time already, but if you have any concluding remarks in the form of a sentence, like, or that which, like, you read us in the Gospel of Thomas, I think will be the right time now.

WA  50:18 

Yeah, I, I don’t know, actually, if I have any way of wrapping this up. I really enjoyed talking about it. And, you know, I’m always happy to talk about early Christian writings—they, I continue to find them fascinating. I suppose, you know, one of the reasons I raised this question right at the, sorry, raised this question, right at the beginning of our discussion, is, is that scholars of religious studies have to indicate why they find this material important if they’re not operating within a theological paradigm that that already determines that importance. And I never sort of answered that. The question implicitly raised by that, which is, why do I find these documents important, interesting and worthy of study? And, and for me, what, what really stands out about these things is, is that they are precious survivals of sub-elite cultural discourses, from Roman antiquity. We have so much data from the Roman Imperial period. So, and wealth of literary data. But to a remarkable degree, that literary data is the product of elites. And typically, the elites of the elites. That is, that is, it represents the viewpoints, not of the people that you would bump into in the marketplace in Corinth or Athens. But the kind of people who were who were senators or friends of senators, what sets the New Testament writings part, what makes them, to me, endlessly fascinating is that they represent a tiny fragment of the voice of some of the people that you might run into in the marketplace in Corinth.

SC  52:18 

That makes absolute perfect sense, and I think it’s a great way for wrapping up this podcast. We have the pleasure to have you here, Professor Arnal, and we hope to have you again soon.

WA  52:29 

Thank you very much.

SC  52:31 

Thank you.

Citation Info:

Arnal, William and Sidney Castillo. 2020. “Ancient Christian Origins: A Heterogenous History”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 19 October 2020. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 19 October 2020. Available at:

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