Posted by: aboutalbion | May 7, 2012

Once upon a time …

The guest writer of the religious ‘Credo’ column in my weekend newspaper faults Don Cupitt and Richard Holloway for publishing books which relate how these well-known authors (both Anglican priests) came to say goodbye to ‘orthodox’ Christian belief.

I read (and re-read) the column seeking in vain some evidence that the guest writer might be aware that ‘orthodox’ Christianity has re-formatted itself several times over the past two millennia.  These periodic re-evaluations of Christianity have been documented, and one of the most readable recent accounts is by Keith Ward.

One of the guest writer’s assertions is “Christianity makes particular historical claims about certain crucial events in the past”.  And the problematic word here is ‘historical’.

Assertion is not evidence.  Just because a story has a historical form does not evidence that the story is history.  It may be, or it may not be.  A story that begins “Once upon a time …” may be plausible history.  It begins to become credible history only when it is attested by contemporary primary sources.

My understanding of the history of Christian origins is that there are no unambiguous primary sources which are contemporary with “certain crucial events in the past”.  Rather, the earliest text of something like a bundle of church letters is papyrus 46 (dated by palaeographers to around 200 CE), and the earliest text of something like the four gospels is papyrus 45 (dated by palaeographers to around 250 CE).  Furthermore, the hypothesis that these papyri are faithful copies of ‘original’ documents written more than one hundred years previously is just that – a hypothesis.  And to a historian, it is just one hypothesis out of many possible hypotheses.  To require all priests living today to adhere to just one hypothetical model of Christian origins strikes me as unnecessarily restrictive.

As I see it, since the evidence is so slender, there is unlikely to be any consensus among historians in explaining the emergence of several kinds Christ cult in the religious market place at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea at the beginning of the second century CE.

[Ward, Keith (2007) Re-Thinking Christianity. Oxford: Oneworld.]

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