This week, I've had an interesting discussion with Phil Harland over at Religions of the Ancient World about the canon, which settled into a discussion about the position of (proto-)orthodox Christians in the early Church. We disagreed, which is fair enough, but what the discussion led me to think about what the nature of traditions in an ancient society. The reason for this is that I think Prof. Harland may be assuming that I'm coming from a naive Eusebian position (see Dr. Harland's outline of three classic scholarly positions on the early church here). I'm not, but it takes some explaining to make that clear. So that is what I'm going to try to do.
I think that the key point of difference between what I'm trying to get at and what I may be coming off as trying to get at is what I mean by an orthodox tradition. Or, more specifically, what I mean by tradition. This is a tricky concept, partly because the term tradition has become something of bete-noire in intellectual circles after the Enlightenment and partly because it has become a polemical term in our more modern culture wars. Yet, I think we need to unpack what a tradition actually is. Here astute readers may recognize the influence of Alasdair McIntyre, a Catholic philosopher out of Notre Dame.
A tradition, in my view, is a relatively coherent body of thought which is characterized both by a narrative featuring a coherent group of people and how they believe they fit in the world and by a running conversation or commentary over time about how this narrative should be interpreted and appropriated by the individuals in that community. It is not calcified belief, but rather must be dynamic as it encounters both internal and external challenges to its status as a truthful narrative. Indeed, the moment that it becomes calcified tradition, with little relation to what is going on in the world or with its followers, it loses it coherence and its ability to explain the world. What follows is that this tradition rapidly loses its appeal and, ultimately, its following.
A healthy tradition, then, is a tradition in which disagreement from within and without is not only expected, but recognized as beneficial. In the clashes and the conversations which comes from these encounters, a successful tradition enhances its narrative' ability to explain the world and, thus, its appeal as an explanation to others in and out of the tradition. This may mean reformulation amid challenges, but these reformulations are made, hopefully, in a way consistent to its original narrative and principles. The risk with reformulation, of course, is that the discord between the reformulation and the tradition's original narrative and principles becomes too much. This can happen and usually results in the emergence of a different tradition which, as it were, piggy-backs on former narrative, but re-interprets it in a fundamentally different way. The conflict caused by this re-interpretation begins as an internal problem, but can, under certain circumstances, become an external issue for a community and its tradition.
Now, the theory here is all well and good, but, before I close off this entry, I really have to do something about application. What I am arguing is that Christianity emerged out of a largely Jewish tradition because of the problem that Jesus and his followers presented to Jewish tradition, especially in regard to the presumed incarnation, resurrection and eschatological hope of a return of Jesus. As the new tradition formed, there was great diversity in interpretations of the basic narrative presented by Jesus and his followers. Among these interpretations was a narrative which, in its outline, posited Jesus as incarnate Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, who was killed by the Romans and Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem c. 30s CE and was resurrected in three days. We have clear attestation of this tradition from the NT writings (which began to emerge in the late 1st century, but was in the process of becoming canonical over the next two or three centuries) to the writings of the Apostolic Fathers to the early Church Fathers like Tertullian, Cyprian, Origin, Cyril of Alexandria, who, pretty much, seemed to agree about these essential elements of what could be called the 'orthodox' tradition (or, at least, proto-orthodox, because it shows the signs of being the early predecessor of what we would later call orthodoxy). Yet, as a dynamic traditions, there continued to be disagreements within this tradition (the Quarto-Deciman controversy, disputes over the authoritative texts to be included in the canon or early Christological disputes), but this was healthy as part of a running conversation on the essential narrative presumed by an assortment of groups.
Clearly, this (proto-)orthodox position was not the only tradition bent on interpreting the narrative of Jesus and his followers. Clearly, there were Docetic, Gnostic, Jewish Christian interpretations of this story among others. Nor should we assume that, just because something we would identify as (proto-)orthodox existed that it was necessarily the strongest strand of Christianity or that it was destined to succeed (these are theological claims, not necessarily historical). Yet, a Bauerian contention that orthodox didn't emerge until the third century simply doesn't cut it either. There is enough evidence to accept that proto-orthodox groups not only existed, but even had contact with each other (see the apostolic travels of Paul and Peter or 1 Clement to the Corinthian church). Christianity was, as Bauer contends, diverse, including many different traditions and interpretations of Jesus' life and death. Why, it also included the (proto-)orthodox tradition, of all things.
I'd appreciate comments on this reasoning as it still is a bit experimental. Just as in a dynamic tradition, I need the input of both those who agree and those who dissent so that I can try to improve my interpretation.