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Walter Schmithals, The Theology of the First Christians. Translated by O.C. Dean, Jr. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


Was the evangelist Mark predicting this book when he wrote, "Not one stone shall be left upon another"? At any rate, Doctor Schmithals certainly seems to leave no stone unturned in this searching reexamination of early Christian thought and practice. He is not one to let sleeping dogmas lie when he thinks that by awakening them we can gain new clarity, and he sheds much light here, entering the lists to provide convincing new solutions to long-stalemated scholarly debates. Many of Schmithals's insights are not as new as they may appear to some readers for the simple and regrettable fact that several of his valuable books have never been rendered into English. (And, speaking of translation, I suspect that we have translator O.C. Dean to thank/blame for the inclusive language glossolalia in which Schmithals is sometimes to be heard speaking here. Someone might have pointed out the difference between translation and redaction.) Several of Schmithals's exegetical and theoretical suggestions ought already to be familiar to us from these earlier books and articles, but then that makes the present collection of studies all the more a cause of rejoicing: better late than never!

Walter Schmithals has always managed to challenge critical theories such as those of Baur and Bultmann with genuinely critical, often more consistent, alternatives, unlike most who challenge them merely in the name of stale apologetics. Others seek to turn the critical clock back; Schmithals tries to set it forward. For instance, his view of the Jerusalem Council and the nature of the dispute between Paul on the one hand and James and Peter on the other: Where Baur understood Paul to represent a law-free gospel attractive to Gentiles, with Peter and James representing a nationalistic Torah-keeping gospel, Schmithals sees all the principles agreeing in the manner of liberal Hellenistic synagogue Judaism that Gentile God-fearers needn't be circumcised as long as they kept basic moral commandments. James, Peter, and the non-Christian Jewish leadership objected only when Paul drew off God-fearers from the synagogue, establishing independent law-free churches (which then attracted liberal Jews to abandon the synagogue for the church as well). So the nature of the Jerusalem accord was simply that Paul should missionize elsewhere, off to the West, in a different sphere of influence, targeting Gentiles not already part of the synagogue structure.

Similarly, Schmithals refurbishes the Messianic Secret theory of Wrede (which some today unwisely reject) by means of a take on the Q Source that curiously parallels that of Burton Mack and company, and is yet unique! As is well known, Mack and others take Q (or rather Q1) to be the gospel of an early Jesus movement that revered Jesus as something like a Cynic sage, a non-dogmatic, non-apocalyptic, non-soteriological Jesus, not a Christ. Mark, though also taking up similar material here and there, has taken his framework of a Messianic Jesus from an entirely different movement, the Christ cult. The fusion is complete when Matthew and Luke conflate Mark with Q. Schmithals applies a rather different, but at least equally suggestive paradigm to the same data. In his view, Mark belonged to kerygmatic, Messianic Christianity (the Christ cult, if you will) and became aware of the remnants of the Galilean Jesus movement who understood Jesus non-messianically (or pre-messianically) as a prophet. This movement would later become the Ebionites of the second century. Mark sought to bring them into the fold, arguing that Jesus was the Messiah, but that understandably the Galileans did not know it because of Jesus' scheme to keep it secret till later. This Schmithals sees as the reason for the Messianic Secret schema. Mark, then, took over an extant Gospel (a kind of Ur-Markus), added the Messianic Secret motif, as well as some of the sayings of Jesus cherished by the Galileans, and produced an ecumenical gospel. The sayings material itself, which survived as Q till Matthew and Luke made it superfluous, was a compilation of the Jesus traditions of the Galileans. Who compiled it? Probably Mark himself! He may have circulated it alongside his gospel, as a supplement. This would explain how it is that both Luke and Matthew "happen" to have both Mark and Q on hand as major sources.

Schmithals is a master of source and redaction criticism, but with form-criticism he holds no truck. It is not that he denies one may sniff out the original Tendenz of this or that pericope, even it's ecclesiastical Sitz-im-Leben, but his point is that our gospels (even Mark) just do not read like compilations. Rather, they are manifestly literary compositions by distinctive hands. There is no reason to posit a tunnel period of oral tradition between the contemporaries of Jesus and the later gospels. Schmithals seems to imply that the attempt of form-critics to fill in the gap this way was merely another species of apologetic like that which the second-century bishops employed when they attributed the gospels to apostles and students of apostles. But doesn't Schmithals himself posit a kind of oral tradition twilight when he envisions the sayings passed on by the Galilean Ebionites? No, because he notes that all the sapiential, this-worldly teachings in Q are secondary, since they cannot be squared with the interim-ethic of the apocalyptic Jesus. And the halakhic controversy stories of Mark are anachronisms, too, stemming from the period of more-or-less peaceful coexistence with the Hellenistic synagogues. The point is much the same as when Burton Mack makes this Markan material the product of the "Synagogue Reform Movement" in Galilee.

Schmithals discusses the late appearance and almost apocryphal status of the gospels. He has no patience with those who scour early ecclesiastical writings looking for evidence of their authors' acquaintance with the gospels, or who find lame reasons for the silence. And yet only in the case of John does Schmithals entertain a Tübingen-like date well on into the second century (he calls attention to recent research exploding the apologetical early dating of the John Rylands papyrus which has so long been used as a talisman to exorcise Baur). He insists on seeing the Synoptics as tied closely to the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue, though a glance at Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity might give him cause to rethink his picture of the Jewish-Christian split happening so early. As in Schmithals's ground-breaking Gnosticism in Corinth, he seems to be coming very close to a Tübingen or even Dutch Radical view of the dating of the texts, but never quite to get there. As in his Pauline studies he must read something like second-century Gnosticism back into the first century, so here he sees Luke-Acts as targeting a kind of "pre-Marcionite" Paulinism. I wonder why he does not go all the way with the cogent case made by John Knox (Marcion and the New Testament) that Luke-Acts in its present form is a second-century counterblast to real, explicit Marcionism. He admits that John's gospel is unattested before Montanists begin citing it, but why not ask whether that gospel may not stem from Montanist circles, and whether it's promises of the Paraclete may be originally intended as credentials for Montanus and his congeners?

Schmithals sees what others do not, that in the case of complex ideas, as in complex texts, we are no doubt dealing with later conflations of earlier, simpler components. It is from the deconstruction of these later theological complexes that he derives his source material for mapping "the theology of the first Christians." For instance, Schmithals disentangles the threads woven together in this and that Pauline text to show how the earliest confession was of God as the one who raised Jesus from the dead. In this frame of reference, the resurrected Jesus was important as the guarantee of the imminent resurrection of all the righteous. As time went by, the focus shifted to Jesus whom God raised and exalted to his right hand as ruling Messiah. In this role Jesus assumed real, though rudimentary, Christological significance as a kind of Mahdi who would save the righteous from the final tribulation. The new covenant would be that established at his Parousia. His saving work, in other words, was yet in the future. His death, first understood as a sacrifice inaugurating the soon-coming new covenant, subsequently became a vicarious sacrifice that brought salvation in the present. The eucharist, too, began as an eschatological celebratory meal and only later took on salvific coloring. At first it was a simple "breaking of bread" without wine. This can be seen from the fact that the meal was variously celebrated in the early church with salt, water, or fish instead of wine as the other "kind." In addition, Schmithals notes, if the bread and wine had gone together from the first, surely we would read of the "flesh and blood" of Christ, not the "body and blood." Flesh is the obvious complement to blood, while "spirit" should accompany "body." (Dare one wonder if somewhere along the chain of signifiers and history-of-religions influences the Zoroastrian soma/haoma somehow became the soma and haima of the gospels? But that's getting too close to John Allegro, I suppose.)

Baptism, too, assumes a new aspect under Schmithals's scrutiny. He argues that Joachim Jeremias and Kurt Aland, in their famous debate about infant versus adult baptism, were each both right and wrong. Schmithals cuts the Gordian Knot: there is no early evidence of the baptism of children born to Christian parents simply because only converts were baptized in the first three centuries. The families were automatically "converted" with the paterfamilias. Sometimes the children were routinely baptized at this time; sometimes, the baptism of the head of the family counted for everyone.

Though Schmithals's disdain for Gnosticism is everywhere apparent, he does not, like so many, allow this distaste to hide from him the important role Gnosticism played in contributing some of the most important categories to early Christian thought. Not only did Gnosticism supply the central notion of apostleship; it also provided some basic conceptuality still visible in the tangle of associations we call baptism and the eucharist. Schmithals rejects the taken-for-granted axiom that Christian baptism was borrowed from John the Baptist. John's rite was a pietistic renewal sacrament within the faith community, while Christian immersion was an initiation rite for outsiders. And, as the Kimbanguist Church of the Congo noticed, the opposition between John's (mere) water baptism and the anticipated Spirit-baptism of Christians clearly implies the later has nothing to do with the former. Christian baptism must have come from Gnosticism, a sacrament of entrance into the collective identity of the Gnostic Light-Man, the Christ whose several members the individual illuminati were. Schmithals points out elsewhere that Gnostic rituals must represent a decadent magical form of an original belief that self-gnosis would be enough to liberate, the same difference we find between knowledge-only jnana yoga and rajah yoga, which supplements pure knowledge with meditative methods. At any rate, Christians must have borrowed baptism "into Christ" from Jewish Gnosticism, where the rite itself was salvific. Similarly, the original Palestinian eschatological eucharist must have been reinterpreted along the lines of the Gnostic rite where, by means of the ritual of eating from one loaf, the illuminati experience their pneumatic oneness, "sharing in the body of Christ."

Schmithals traces two separate Christologies back to two major centers of early Christianity. In Antioch, an adoptionist conception understood the death of the virtuous Jesus as an atoning sacrifice, while in Damascus, under Jewish Gnostic influence, espoused an pre-existence Christology according to which it was the humiliation of the incarnation, and not the death in particular, that wrought salvation. The Damascenes had already drawn on pure Jewish Gnosticism, which had only a heavenly Christ-Aion who became "incarnate" only by virtue of the scattering of his divine sparks into the bodies of mortal illuminati. This they combined with the Palestinian Jewish Christian faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah in a more traditional, historical sense. Thus the fall of the Primal Man of Light into the material realm became the self-emptying of the pre-incarnate Christ as the incarnate Jesus. Paul had been converted to the Damascene form of Christianity, but once he began to associate himself with the mission of the Antiochene Jewish-Christian synagogues, he combined elements of both Christologies. Burton Mack talks about the gradual fusion of disparate Jesus movements and Christ cults and, though Mack's name never once occurs in this book, Schmithals seems to have filled in the blanks left by Mack's generality. This is no criticism of Mack. Anyone would be well advised to read his wonderful books and Schmithals's together.

I have already anticipated how Schmithals's suggestions sometimes seem to imply more radical conclusions than he himself reaches. Let me just note in conclusion how two of Schmithals's form-critical insights into the Pauline Epistles would help elucidate a key aspect of the Dutch Radical paradigm. W.C. van Manen and others rejected the Pauline authorship of every single so-called Pauline Epistle, allowing that there may well have been some early, no-longer extant letters actually written by the historical Paul, and that these gave rise to the notion of Paul the Epistolarian, upon which our canon of pseudepigraphical Pauline Epistles is based. Since Van Manen judged the Pauline pseudepigrapha to be patchworks, he did not exclude the possibility that some genuine Pauline fragments might remain. Schmithals, too, partitions the Pauline Epistles into several earlier fragments, though he ascribes them all to Paul. That much was already clear from Schmithals's Paul and Gnosticism. But in The Theology of the First Christians he focuses on a whole series of versified teaching formulae which appear to have been incorporated (and adapted) in the present Epistle texts. They are not pre-Pauline texts, as scholars often say, but rather Pauline formulae that Paul himself is citing. So far, Schmithals. But suppose that these various "teaching nuggets" were all that remained of the historical Paul? Suppose the Pauline School, who wrote all the Pauline Epistles, preserved these "golden verses" of Paul the Apostle by embedding them into their Epistolary contexts. Schmithals might be said to have isolated a kind of Pauline Q Source. (Some feel more secure in positing the Synoptic Q Source because the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas provides an extant parallel to it; in the same way it may be worth noting that there is actually a parallel to the Pauline Q suggested here. As it happens, there is a set of ten ancient British formulaic sayings called The Triads of Paul the Apostle.) 

The Theology of the First Christians is a great book by a great New Testament scholar. No one will fail to learn much from it.



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