Easter, the ‘Two Ways’ and Ritual Meals
Good Morning. And Happy Easter! This is a holiday named for Estre, or in the Germanic languages, Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility. That’s where the eggs and the bunnies come from.
Last Easter I spoke here about some “Scholarly Contentions” — the views of leading edge scholars on several developing issues in the field of Christian Origins Studies. There are a number of individual scholars, and groups who have combined their efforts, researching, analyzing and writing books about some aspect or another of how Christianity became a separate and distinct religion from its Jewish roots and then how it grew (and changed) to become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire and ultimately throughout Europe and the European colonies in the Americas.
My special interest has been the time in which the Jesus movements and similar groups such as Christ cults, arose in the first century of the common era, and then the development of these groups including their writings through the latter part of the 2nd century when the collection of writings we now call the “New Testament” began to achieve authoritative status. I’m interested particularly in how the common folk, the women and men of the lower and middle classes, became involved in these movements and what effects their participation had on their lives and life-styles.
Like many of you I was raised in a family that accepted the commonly understood story of Christian beginnings: the Christmas story, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry, the story of Jesus’ last passover and the drama of his trial and crucifixion. I listened to sermons based on the letters of Paul and other apostles and knew the conventional outlines of Christian beginnings fairly well. As an earnest 19 year old I spent the summer reading the Bible from cover to cover, just so I could say I had done it.
In my middle years, I became quite interested in archaeology, particularly so-called “Biblical Archaeology.” I attended lots of weekend seminars put on by the Biblical Archaeological Society and several week-long seminars, featuring instructors such as Professors Bart Ehrman and Charles Hedrick. I learned that there were many, many questions and doubts about the stories of Christian beginnings that I had learned in my youth. I also learned that there were a number of groups of scholars engaged in collaborative efforts to determine what in the New Testament is likely to be factual, and what may have been written a long time later to provide a myth of origin to some view or practice that was common in that later time. The methods these scholars used to analyze and test early writings and to give them context in the times and circumstances in which they were written were fascinating though much too arcane to try to describe in detail in a talk like this.
When I spoke last Easter one of the writers I mentioned is Professor Barrie Wilson of Toronto University, author of book entitled “How Jesus Became Christian,” and that’s a theme I want to delve into again this year. Professor Wilson, like many scholars before him, feels that Paul, the putative author of 14 of the 27 books in the New Testament was the real inventor of Christianity — that Paul infiltrated a movement of Jesus followers seated firmly as a branch of 1st century Judaism, “confiscated” Judaism’s heritage, “demonized” the leaders of the Jews, and then “covered-up” a switch of a Jewish Messiah, Jesus, for a Christian God/Chirst to appeal to the Gentiles – the non-Jews – who were beginning to make up the greater portion of the Jesus followers. Much of current research focuses on the times and events Wilson covers in his book.
Let’s take a brief look at these times, events, people and ideas that made up a very complicated melting pot of ethnicities, cultures and societies in the Eastern Mediterranean during the 1st century of the common era.
Following the conquest by Alexander the Great of what we call the Middle East, Greek or “Hellenistic” style cities were intentionally built up in a sprinkling throughout the area in order to establish Greek culture. In 164 BCE a revolution of Jews led by the Maccabees sought to push back some of the cultural influence of Hellenism and re-establish the purity standards of the ancient Israelite religion. The ensuing Jewish dynasty lasted more than 100 years. But the Romans returned with their client-King Herod in 37 BCE and Hellenistic culture again gained force in Judea and Galilee. Hellenistic cities were rebuilt and thriving in the time of Jesus.
Let’s consider the time and place of Christianity in this multi-ethnic, poly-cultural environment. Pontius Pilate was Prefect of Judea from the years 26 through 36 and that marks the latest year that a crucifixion of Jesus could have taken place under Pilate’s direction.
There are no manuscripts dating back to or originating in that time frame that tell anything about Jesus of Nazareth. Scholars generally believe Paul began to write his letters to Christian congregations around the year 50. There exists evidence of early oral traditions and writings contemporaneous with the time of Paul that I will be mentioning, but the oldest fragments we have of any of these date from 200 years later. The oldest complete manuscript of the New Testament is the “Codex Siniaticus” in the British Museum which was written about the year 350.
We must bear in mind that there were no newspapers, magazines, phones or other media devices that we take for granted. There were no stationary stores where you could buy writing materials and no book-stores. If you were wealthy and wanted to own a scroll of just one of the books of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) you first had to buy eight sheep, have them slaughtered and their hides turned into parchment; then you had to find someone who owned a copy of the scroll you wanted and would let you have a copy of it made. Finally you hired a scribe to copy the scroll over a period of weeks or months. So written materials were uncommon and treasured when they existed. As copies were made the ideas and views of the copiers often found their way into the texts.
In Judea and Galilee, predominately Jewish communities and villages were interspersed with more cosmopolitan Hellenistic cities. Moreover, many Jews lived beyond the bounds of Palestine as Jews dispersed among the nations of the world – the Diaspora. In almost every city in which Jews lived in significant numbers they had established synagogues as houses of prayer and meeting. Synagogues also served as places of instructing gentiles in the religion of Judaism. Judaism was attractive to many gentiles because it encouraged family stability, practiced monotheism (as opposed to the confusing array of mythological gods worshiped by the Romans), offered a well-defined moral and ethical code, and placed a high value on human life. Thus, many non-Jews became “God-fearers.” While not considered converts to Judaism and the Law of Moses, God-fearers were permitted to attend the synagogues and participate, with some restrictions, in the Jewish services.
As the oral stories of the life of Jesus circulated from city to city within and then beyond Palestine it was in the synagogues and among both Jews and the gentile God-fearers that they captured attention. We know that it was from the synagogues that Paul sought converts to his brand of Christianity. It was to the communities of his converts established in this manner that he wrote his letters of instructions as he moved further along his journeys.
Many scholars feel that the books and letters that made it into the canonical New Testament were polemical, meaning they were written with an agenda in mind to promulgate and teach a certain view (as were the other writings of that era). An example is the Gospel of Mark whose author talks about a ‘messianic secret’ (that Jesus was the promised Messiah) which Jesus repeatedly discloses to his disciples, but they just never got it. Mark’s agenda for his Gospel was that readers – the community for whom he composed his biography of Jesus – would have a clearer picture of Jesus’ mission than did Jesus’ own chosen disciples and his family and thus Mark deprecates the disciples and family of Jesus. The analyses that disclose these writers agendas are fascinating – a good place to start is Burton Mack’s “Who Wrote the New Testament?”.
When a nucleus of believers formed they moved beyond the synagogue into the homes of the wealthier members of the group. It was in such homes, in the context of greco-roman communal meals that the earliest Jesus followers met and discussed their new beliefs and heard from itinerant missionaries like Paul.
Current research is disclosing that communal meals had a much more important and ritual aspect in the social structure and activities of people in the 1st century than was previously realized. There were many voluntary associations formed by groups which shared backgrounds or interests, including religious views or a shared patron deity [“The Fellowship of Hercules” or “The Company of Dionysus” for example]. When a nucleus of Jesus believers formed, they joined in such a voluntary association and moved beyond the synagogue into the homes of the wealthier members of the group where they held their communal meal meetings.
If one reviews all of the stories of Jesus, it’s surprising to realize how many of the accounts deal with meals. The wedding feast at Cana, Jesus being accused of eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus hosted in the homes of the wealthy such as Zaccheus, a Pharisee leader, and Simon the leper. Eating with his friends Mary and Martha in their home at Bethany, then the feeding of the 4000, and the 5000 and, of course, the last supper in the upper room.
This past year Professor Hal Taussig of Union Theological Seminary published a substantial volume entitled “In the Beginning was the Meal.” For the past 8 years Dr. Taussig and others in the prestigious Society for Biblical Literature have pursued annual seminar meetings on the topic “Meals in the Greco Roman World” which has included papers with titles ranging from “Early Christian Meals and Slavery” to “Women, Funerary Meals,…and the Origins of Early Christian Meals” to “…, Performing Midrash at Rabbinic Meals.”
In a seminar paper written last year, Dr. Dennis Smith lists the characteristics of a ritual communal meal and I’ll mention just a fascinating few of them:
It was a reclining meal with participants arranged in priority of honor, reclining on their left sides so they could eat with their right hands from shared dishes while they engaged in conversation. It’s surprising to realize that all the meals of Jesus in the Gospels are depicted as reclining meals.
Social convention divided the meal into two segments, the diepnon or supper and the symposion or drinking party. The transition from diepnon to symposion was marked by removing the tables and sweeping the floor. Then wine was brought in and mixed with water and a libation was offered. This was a religious ceremony in which the wine was dedicated to a deity, Dionysus for the Greeks, “the Lord” for the Jews and the Jesus followers, and a portion of the wine was poured out to the deity.
The symposion was the centerpiece of the occasion and extended for several hours into the evening. The activities could be entertainment, games, dramatic presentations, philosophical discussions, conversation about the Torah or the telling of Jesus stories.
Shared social values, “friend-making”, equality in food served and in participation in conversation were hallmarks, but always with due regard to social stratification which was shown by a person’s position at the table.
In Gospel accounts, Jesus scandalizes the Pharisees by allowing tax collectors and sinners to recline and position themselves wherever they wished.
Questions still being studied are whether slaves were permitted to participate, the roles and status of women in these settings and where such meetings were held. Seminar papers suggest that, sometimes at least, slaves did participate and even were honored, and that references to women such as Mary Madeleine and Mary and Martha of Bethany and to Lydia, Paul’s hostess mentioned in Acts, show that women regularly participated in Jesus followers’ worship.
Now that we’ve looked at the surprising form of early Christian meetings, let’s look at the substance of what was talked about in the symposion when Jesus stories were told.
I mentioned Paul promoting his ‘brand’ of Christianity. Research discloses that there were, in these first years of the Jesus movements, some very different brands of Christianity available. Some scholars speak in the plural, of “Christianities” and Professor Bart Ehrman has written a very worthwhile book called “Lost Christianities– The Battles for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew” which I highly recommend.
Other scholars prefer to divide the new competing faiths into two categories: the “Jesus followers” and the “Christ cults” and there were multiple groups in each category. The distinction reflects the contrasting ways Jesus and his life and mission were viewed by followers within Judaism and by God-fearer gentiles.
For the Jews of the 1st century, the promised Messiah would be a leader appointed by God – a future King of Israel of the lineage of David, who will usher in a messianic age when Hellenization will be rolled back and all the world will recognize and accept the Law of Moses. The 12 tribes will be restored in a United Kingdom and the Jews will serve as teachers and instructors of the nations of the world to teach them the principles of the Law and particularly the rules of cultic purity.
Again strangely, the evidence now shows that many early Jesus followers didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the details of the life of Jesus and did not attribute any special significance to the manner of his birth or death. They seemed to never have discussed those things but placed primary importance on what he said.
New Testament scholars in a large preponderance now agree that we can extract from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke the threads of an earlier ‘sayings gospel’ which the authors of Matthew and Luke both used, but edited to suit their own ends. The German researchers who first realized the existence of this sayings gospel called it “Q” from the German word ‘quelle’ or ‘source.’ We don’t have a text of it in its original form, but it has been extracted and several authors have published it along with commentaries, including this volume called “The Complete Gospels” from the Jesus Seminar.
Professor Burton Mack, in his book, “Who Wrote the New Testament?” writes,
“Q brings the early Jesus people into focus, and it is a picture so different from that which anyone ever imagined as to be startling. Instead of a people meeting to worship a risen Christ…, or worrying about what it meant to be the follower of a martyr, the people of Q were fully preoccupied with questions about the kingdom of God in the present, and the behavior required if one took it seriously. … There are mothers and neighbors, farmers and lawyers, tax collectors and Roman soldiers, all crowding into the picture. … The people of Q were taking it on the bounce, intrigued with what happened when one chose to deviate from the usual norms of behavior and live by the rule(s) of the kingdom of God.”
It is from Q that we have the Sermon on the Mount, as Matthew edited it, and the Sermon on the Plain as Luke edited it.
The Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945 in a trove of Coptic documents at Nag Hammaddi, Egypt, is also a sayings gospel, but comes from an entirely different community of Jesus followers than Q. The texts of both Q and Thomas appear to have been embellished and supplemented at later times, but may scholars consider the earliest strand of these sayings gospels to be the closest we will ever get to what Jesus may actually have said.
By analyzing and comparing early texts, researchers have discerned the existence of several other Jesus follower groups that did not appear to give special sacramental significance to the death of Jesus. One of these was the group in Jerusalem led by James, the ‘brother of Jesus’ which Paul speaks of in Galatians and Luke mentions in the Book of Acts. Clearly, this group – the “Pillars in Jerusalem” – was highly revered and was comprised of fully observant Jews who believed in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. In tradition, this group of Jewish Jesus followers became the Ebionites a sect mentioned by the historian Eusibius as still existing in the 4th century.
Let’s now turn to the Christ cults, and by that term scholars are not being pejorative in the sense we use the word ‘cult’ today. “Cult” has a broader meaning of both ‘worship’ and ‘worshipers.’
Over centuries the greco-roman world built up the concept of ‘a noble death’ as a validation of the life-work of a heroic figure. Stories of the deaths of heroic warriors in the service of their country as well as of teachers like Socrates who set noble examples in the manner of their deaths were taken as validations of the lifetime deeds of such persons. Jewish literature added accounts of martyrs who died defending the purity of Jewish law and the Temple in the time of the Maccabees. The Jews also had a tradition of the persecuted sage, thought of as the child of Wisdom, who was unjustly condemned and executed and who then was vindicated and deemed worthy of honor. Many splinter groups in Judaism became “messianic” – looking forward to the eminent appearance of a Messiah who would put all things in order. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls look forward to the appearance of two Messiahs, a political or military Messiah of Judah, and a spiritual or priestly Messiah of Aaron. These Messiah cults, or using the Greek terminology, Christ cults, existed both before and after the time of Jesus.
This past year there has been much publicity about the recently discovered “Gabriel Stone,” a stone tablet version of a Dead Sea Scroll, interpreted by Jewish scholar Israel Knoll as a prediction referring to a royal slave named Simon who led an uprising in 4 BCE, burned the royal palace in Jericho and was then captured and executed on the eve of Passover. Knoll reads a line of the tablet as a command by the Angel Gabriel to Simon to rise “in three days’ to resume his mission – a pre-Jesus ‘dying and rising’ Messiah.
So let’s pull these several bits of information together. In the period of the earliest records of Christianity, the decade from the years 50 to 60, we see a number of groups of Jesus followers who seem unconcerned with any special significance in his death, don’t seem to know anything about a miraculous birth, but look on Jesus as a teacher who said the common people could make the kingdom of God a reality in the present time by living a particular way.
Then we have other, seemingly unrelated groups, who are beginning to put Jesus in a long standing tradition of a martyred suffering Messiah. We see gentile God-fearers beginning to mix socially and at communal meals where Jesus is the focus of discussion with Jewish Jesus believers, in an unconventional open fellowship of women, men, slaves and slave-owners, tax-collectors and sinners.
A place where this was most certainly happening was Antioch, then the principal city in Northern Syria. The Book of Acts tells us that Antioch was the place where the name “Christian” was first used for the followers of Jesus. Paul made multiple visits to Antioch on his journeys.
Scholars now think Antioch is the likely home of the community of Jesus followers that produced an early writing call the “Didache” or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” Like many ancient texts, it seems to have developed in stages and the earliest stage included a text called “The Two Ways” referring to the ‘Way of Life’ and the ‘Way of Death’.
A number of other early documents refer to the ‘two ways’ teaching and scholars now believe that these all were based on a Jewish source, perhaps composed to teach the God-fearers and prospective converts to Judaism the principles of the 10 commandments. The Way of Life is to love God and your neighbor and don’t do to another what you wouldn’t want done to you; to abstain from lust, to bless those that curse you and to pray for your enemies, to turn the other cheek if you are struck and to go two miles with the person who asks you to go one. Eight of the ten commandments are summarized, leaving out the one about honoring one’s parents, and the one about keeping the Sabbath holy – commandments probably thought not applicable to Gentiles.
The ‘Way of Death’ is the opposite, indulging in evils ranging from murder to vanity to not pitying the poor and to oppressing the afflicted. As the document’s text was embellished over time new layers of counsel were added. It looks like it may have been written to be read at the communal meals where newcomers and proselytes were taught the standards of the community.
What is significant for our inquiry is that these teachings seems to nicely parallel the teachings of the Q community: Jesus’ message is to live like we are presently part of the kingdom of God, and the society envisioned by the Two Ways community is a broadly diverse egalitarian fellowship of mixed social and economic status.
There are passages that show intriguing insights into the community’s life. If a wandering apostle or prophet happens along, he should be fed for a day and a meeting called to hear what he has to say. If need be he can stay a second day, but if he is still there on the third day, he is a false prophet. A wanderer can settle down in the community but must work and not “traffic upon Christ,” in idleness. At this early stage, there is no evidence of a hierarchy in the governance structure of the community. Apparently it’s just the common judgment of the members or what we’d call the congregational model of governance.
Communal meals are mentioned: members are advised to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols as that would be the worship of false gods. Much of the meat that was available in those greco-roman settings was meat from the sacrifices in the various pagan temples. We can suspect from this cautioning that members of the community brought their own contributions to the communal meal. Perhaps Professor Taussig’s recent treatise should have been named “In the Beginning was the Pot-Luck.”
Professor Wilson, writing of the Didache – the “Two Ways” document – notes that it has many parallels to traditional Jewish meal and thanksgiving prayers. The prayers given in the Didache for the libation at the beginning of the symposion part of the ritual meal are in the Jewish tradition of thanksgiving, and contrast sharply with the prayers that Paul and Mark’s Gospel attribute to Jesus at the “last supper,” prayers about eating the bread as Jesus’ body and drinking the wine as his blood in remembrance of him. Wilson points out that the prayers in Paul and Mark were more characteristic of the imagery of a pagan mystery religion such as the cult of Isis and Osiris or the cult of Bacchus and would have been offensive to observant Jews.
Let me summarize some of the things we now know and try to put them in historic context. In the middle of the 1st century of the common era, around 50-60 CE, when Paul was writing letters to his convert communities in the Eastern Mediterranean, there were other Jesus followers (I’m avoiding calling them Christians, because they would not fit under the doctrinal and creedal definitions developed in the ensuing centuries – but then most scholars don’t believe Jesus was “Christian” by those definitions either). These were Jesus followers who believed the important teachings of Jesus were about how to live in the now so as to be a part of an immediate and present kingdom of God. Jesus followers who believed and taught, firstly, a moral and ethical code patterned after that of the Jews but with additions attributed to Jesus: love God and your neighbors, don’t do as you wouldn’t want to be done to, abstain from lust, bless in return for curses, pray for your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, pity the poor, and don’t oppress the afflicted.
Secondly, these Jesus followers lived in an accepting and welcoming fellowship of differing backgrounds, views and social status. They worshiped through joyous communal ritual meals which had as themes community sharing, communal thanksgiving and varied instruction. They viewed women as equals to men, and slaves as persons of value. They seemed to have no hierarchy of governance and no set lines of authority.
One might describe these communities as based on a commitment to the ‘Right Way of Life.’ That’s what they seemed to be saying in the “Two Ways” document.
I’m sure you’re eager to know the rest of the story. Over the next few centuries Paul’s version of the Christ cult became the dominant view. Doctrines and dogmas were added, priests and elders and bishops, popes and patriarchs were appointed to take charge. Women were limited and treated as inferior to their male relations. Holy Books were designated, Councils were held to make sure that everyone believed the right things in the right way so that orthodoxy or right belief replaced ortho praxis or the right way of life as the standard of correctness and righteousness. Wars were fought to exterminate the wrong believers. Sins were defined, guilt and promises of damnation were made tools of control, and penance, punishment and inquisitions were established to discipline and weed out the nonconformists.
Holidays were appointed as days to remember religious events and perform religious devotions but ultimately these got shared with merchants as special shopping periods. Easter (or Pascha as it is known elsewhere in the world) started as an annual period of mourning sometime around the year 100 but a century later had added a day or a longer period of celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Unfortunately, no agreement was ever reached by all parties as to the proper day for this celebration.
But through all of this tangled history there were always a few – individuals and groups, sometimes congregations or groups of congregations – that retained the perspective that the most important part of the Jesus tradition is pretty much the same as what those early Jesus followers called the “Way of Life.” Somewhat like … maybe … perhaps … like PUUF? — (sometimes).
Talk given by Marriner Cardon
Easter, April 4, 2010
Prescott Unitarian Universalist Fellowship