Were the Canonical NT Authors Bowing to Popular Pagan Converts? (2 of 2)

In my first part of this article, I unpacked the details and implications of the sceptical proposition "The canonical Gospels (and particularly their infancy narratives) are, in part, orthodox responses and redactions of stories by early pagan converts that simply got out of hand and became too popular to ignore."

This proposal represents an interesting variant of a normal type of sceptical theory about how various fictional myths (distinct from historical events with mythic meaning) got attached to the story of the historical Jesus Christ by the followers of Jesus after his death. On this general type of theory the pronoun would be decapitalized of course, Jesus having never been anything other than another purely human man; although actually this variant of the theory is flexible enough that it could include something like the idea that almost all events and ideas in the Gospels (and Acts) are true except for the virgin birth and the two infancy narratives built around it -- the theory would be attempting to explain how (for this theory) the fictional infancy narratives and their pagan ideas got incorporated into the Gospels with some Christian theological baptism, so to speak. But of course, the theory is also flexibly capable of going as far or farther than Schweitzer (to give a highly influential early 20th century example) in dismissing almost all events and ideas in the Gospels (and Acts) as false, with some or (not necessarily) all of those details imported by Christian authorities and authors -- for what reason? Per this interesting variant, because out-of-control innovations by pagan converts to Christianity became too popular to be ignored or otherwise censured.

So: the theory is about a situation at the time of canonical authorship -- and the theory can be flexible about the timing (so long as the timing isn't impossible), and situations could be different at different times. Consequently, the text characteristics themselves will have to stand as sufficient evidence about what the situation was, at any given time of authorship. If the text characteristics don't fit the proposed situation, then there's no need to try to consider timing factors for Christian society otherwise.

Now, the first thing to note is that Paul of Tarsus usually gets the blame in sceptical theories for introducing pagan innovations into Christianity; and almost all compositional theories, across the ideological board, consider his epistles to have been written some time before the canonical Gospels and Acts.

But Paul regularly tells his congregations to stay away from pagan religious ideas and even from philosophical schools -- which is important to note since Paul shows signs of not only having been educated in the Greco-Roman gymnasia system but also of continuing to appreciate at least some Greek philosophers. But he appreciates them, as far as he does, strictly within the terms of Judeo-Christianity, and not a step farther, not even in the Mars Hill scene in Acts where he goes far in granting credit to pagan religion and philosophy. He doesn't at all appeal to either of those broad groups, implicitly or explicitly, broadly or specifically, as grounds for his own beliefs, much less for the beliefs of his congregations. On the contrary he congratulates his congregations for getting out of such things and warns them in harsh terms not to get back into them.

In other words, even when Paul is being charitably lax -- even by some modern conservative standards! -- he isn't bowing to popular pressure for innovation at all. When he talks about and recommends charitably bowing to social pressure, he does so in favor of (what we would now call) more conservative beliefs! -- since for those other (more conservative) people doing such-and-such must be wrong and therefore to lead them into doing what they themselves regard as wrong would be sin. That may be a little more liberal attitude than many conservative Christians would be comfortable with -- he's basically saying such people are weak and should be pitied and protected by the self-sacrifice of those who are strong enough to know that eating pagan meat simply by itself, for example, is of no consequence -- but it's a liberal attitude that still runs completely against the idea that he's bowing to popular pressure to import pagan ideas into Christianity. Even when he says in 1 Cor 9 that in becoming like those without the Torah of God he makes himself weak in order to win to Christ those outside the Torah (i.e. pagans whom he also regards as weak), he specifies he is not without the Torah (Law) of God but under the Law of Christ. And that's in a passage, toward the end of the chapter, where he uses the gymnasium or Olympic athletic system as a good analogy!

Again, not much earlier (in what we now call chapter 8), when he grants some leniency in eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols, and along the way imports Jesus Christ into a level on par with God the Father -- which sceptical theories tend to explain by pagan influence -- he explicitly rejects any idea of accepting pagan influence! For even though he acknowledges many lords and gods do exist, they are practically nothing and might as well not even exist compared to the Jewish God of the Shema, and neither should Christians have anything to do with such lesser lords and gods but rather with God the Father and Jesus Christ, two distinct persons of the one God of the Jewish Shema. Whatever his idea is here, it must be sought in Jewish preliminary ideas, not from pagan compromise, and certainly not as a grudging allowance of pagan ideas imposed upon him by popular pressure (even if redacted by him into something more suitable).

Again taking 1 Cor as a handy example, Paul's own chief enemy in the Corinthian church is a fellow I like to nickname the Stepmom-Sleeping Guy. He has managed to get some authority in the Corinthian congregation, and likes to import pagan and philosophical ideas (especially when those allow him to do what he wants, like sleep with his father's wife). His presence is also connected to the factionalizing among the Corinthians, with parties taking sides of various teachers as in philosophical schools, including Paul himself along with Jesus among those party factions. But Paul absolutely rejects this in the harshest terms (and with some ripe sarcasm along the way), and goes so far as to hand the SSG over to Satan for the whole-destruction of his flesh! Even though Paul sees that punishment as remedial discipline, and still expects the SSG's spirit to be saved eventually in the Day of the Lord to come, that doesn't mean he approves of what the SSG has been doing; nor would he, by parallel, approve of other Christian teachers doing the same thing. In fact Paul drops the hammer on other teachers in other epistles (at least once using language similar to the SSG's denunciation) for letting pagan influence into the congregations.

Whenever the topic comes up in the Pauline epistles, the textual characteristics run strongly against the idea that Paul is importing pagan ideas at all as a basis for his and his congregations' Christian religious beliefs (or any of their beliefs even if not religious). Nor does it matter how many of the epistles someone regards as legitimately Pauline; pick any subset to be pseudonymous as you like: if the topic comes, so will the same characteristics.

Nor does the situation change for the Epistle to the Hebrews, which makes no specific claim to be Pauline (and may make claims excluding Paul's authorship) but which does claim to be associated with Paul's group(s). On the contrary, whoever the author is, he's evidently promoting a (proto-)orthodox Christianity over-against Philonic Judaism! -- a popular compromise system among Hellenistic Jews and previously-pagan Godfearers who aren't quite ready to be Jews yet. (Although, it's a whole other discussion how far the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo was actually compromising Judaism. But he sure wasn't doing so, out of some kind of popular previously-pagan pressure within Judaism!)

Maybe other Christian authorities were letting such things in, at the time of Paul's epistles and/or later, in deference to popular pressure? The authoritative behavior could have happened outside his Churches and in the intervening years between the epistles and gospels.

Alexander (in the original Facebook thread) asked this in followup, as though I had only mentioned Paul in my reply to his original post; but in fact I had (more briefly than this) pointed out, that the exact same behavior runs through all the canonical texts whenever the topic comes up, and beyond their composition for centuries.

So at what point are the authors supposed to be grudgingly bowing to pagan popular notions among Christian converts and changing their own ideas to follow suit (even if doing so with redactional coloring)?

As noted, any proposed pseudo-Paulines do the same thing as any legitimate Paulines. When we go to the Catholic epistles, i.e. all the other canonicals with authors different from Paul? It doesn't matter when they were written or by who they were really written; be as early or as late, as genuine or as spurious as you like, the result will be the same: a refusal to bow to any importation of pagan ideas, whether philosophical or religious. It isn't that the texts are completely silent on the matter; on the contrary they say enough to let us know that there were popular importations from pagan converts going on, as well as importations being introduced by nominally Christian authorities. But all the canonical epistle authors to the last man (or woman perhaps in a couple of cases), not just Paul, reject and oppose this; just like they reject and oppose popular and authoritative attempts to bring back or inject Judaic legalism. Yet they aren't rejecting and opposing Jewish theology! -- everything they write hews back to that, and promotes it as the only good theology for their followers. Ditto Jewish history, and Jewish scriptures: any redaction or midrashing by the canonical epistle writers at any time, has the Jewish canonical scriptures in view, and in religious respect for them.

That's over half the NT with characteristics explicitly running against this theory.

RevJohn? God help you there, if you're bowing to authoritative or popular pagan pressure! -- or rather, God isn't going to help you, He's going to zorch you for doing so, in arguably the harshest such language in the whole canonical New Testament. Even if the final result of that zorching brings the rebels back into loyalty to God after all (which I'll mention as an exegetical option since, being a Christian universalist, I might be expected to), that doesn't in the least mean pagan importation is being grudgingly or opportunistically accepted by the canonical author.

At last then we come to the Gospels and Acts. There's nothing left, and they're what the proposal was explicitly about anyway.

And, much to the not-surprise of anyone familiar with them, they do the exact same thing. However liberal (we might say) Jesus is in being kind to pagans, and complimenting pagans, and reaching out to pagans, he stays firmly rooted in promoting Jewish theology and gives no indications that he, thus not the authors either, is grudgingly allowing in pagan ideas too popular to ignore or oppose anymore; much less changing prior Jewish (much less prior Christian) ideas to match these new fictional innovations. It doesn't matter how historically accurate the authors are portraying Jesus in any of the four canonical Gospels: he's shown doing one thing and not another.

Nor are the authors doing this when narrating and commenting on events. Nor when writing other authoritative characters, including in Acts, where we actually do see some popular pagan pressures once in a while, typically on Paul's side of the story (as might be expected from his missionary outreach) -- but those pressures are being rejected by the authoritative characters. Back on Peter's side of the story, his great epiphany about the animals being all fit to eat, has nothing to do with importing pagan ideas from converts (even if he's baptizing them in doing so), but rather about him being less narrowminded about reaching out to pagans to bring them into the promises of Jewish theology as he understands it after Jesus. Pagan popular pressure nearly kills Paul, but he doesn't reluctantly bow to incorporating it to save himself. Even when he and his cousin and fellow evangelist Barnabas are mistaken for Zeus and Apollo in human form, and he has an opportunity to incorporate a popular pagan pressure in a peaceful way, he doesn't bring religious ideas about Zeus and Apollo into his Christian message (and nearly gets himself and Barnabas killed for his refusal to accommodate the crowd). That means Luke, the author of Acts, isn't doing it either.

So there is routine explicit evidence of various kinds across the canon, against the idea that the authorities, and canonical authors, are ceding their religious stances and modifying them in response to popular pressure among pagan converts.

What is the evidence supposed to be in favor of the theory? Pagans (like the astrologers in GosMatt) coming to worship the God of Israel? -- that hardly counts! Story details with Jewish connections that happen to have some degree of parallel in pagan stories? None of those details include intrinsic evidence in favor of their inclusion being due to authorities bowing to popular pagan convert pressure -- I confidently challenge anyone to try arguing otherwise -- and while the theory offers one explanation for their existence, that explanation flies against the evidence of other strong textual characteristics.

The only potential evidence I can imagine remaining in favor of the theory, would be details being changed progressively between Gospel compositions, in a more overtly pagan theological direction even if redactionally baptized; but that would involve something like the Synoptics talking about the incident of the Feeding of the 5000 in connection with the Jewish Passover festival, and then in GosJohn Isis comes down to marry Jesus during the Feeding while the Passover connections are either ignored or deployed in support of this and then Jesus deflects complaints from his apostles about how freaking pagan that is with a reassurance that it's all right, he has known Isis for a long time and now she has found him again so why not celebrate for he was lost and now is found and was dead but now is alive?

But that kind of thing doesn't happen. Not even a little bit. Actually, it's the Synoptics which don't mention Passover connections and GosJohn which does! -- and then goes into some high level obscure rabbinic Jewish disputes about its meaning soon afterward. If it's dated at the end of the compositional arc of development, GosJohn is getting more Jewish if anything!

And while the Synoptic parallel feeding of the 4000 could be distantly inferred from its narrative details to have occurred in a largely pagan area and so to have maybe involved a lot of pagans who were maybe (due to the probable season of the event) on the way to a pagan spring festival and decided to do this instead for three days...? Even then, there's nothing explicit about that in the Gospels themselves. And even though the situation would thereby involve exactly the large number of pagan converts the theory expects (and so the Gospels could be speaking in code about them, using a fictional parallel to the 5000), there's no sign that pagan ideas are being thus imported, much less that this importation of pagan ideas was happening due to popular pressure. And then not only GosJohn but GosLuke drop the 4000 altogether, on standard dating and composition theories! -- the barely imaginable evidence, such as it is, would run in reverse of the theory on this example!

(Not that I'm taking this example from anyone I know of; I'm just volunteering it out of my own harmonization work: I do think the 4000 involved evangelizing pagan Gentiles in comparison to evangelizing Jews during the 5000 incident, and Jesus may have even co-opted a pagan holiday to do it. But I wouldn't hang anything on that, since the evidence for it is scanty if suggestive, and I sure don't see pagan ideas being thus imported into Christianity thereby.)

Again, I feel quite confident of challenging anyone on evidence of a supposed doctrinal or thematic development from less pagan to more pagan between the Gospels at all, and much less any such development also having evidence of being due to authors and/or their own authorities bowing to popular pagan convert pressure.

And without even that, there's nothing left: the theory has no intrinsic evidence in its favor, only data that the theory is trying to explain the existence of; and lots of explicit evidence of various kinds against this attitude being a factor for any of the canonical authors even when they do testify to popular pressure from pagan converts.

The theory could still be said to have some level external evidence, depending on how far the argument(s) from similarity of Christian details to pagan details can be pressed; but what external evidence is there that, at the time of Gospel (and Acts) composition (no later than the mid-100s, or back as early as the 60s, 50s, or even 40s), there was such out-of-control pagan innovationing happening that the (proto-)orthodox Christian authorities decided the best or safest route was to appease the mob and incorporate the popular details with some Christian baptizing (so to speak)?

I think I can safely say that any such proposed external evidence falls into two distinct categories.

Category (A): the evidence is the same as such evidence internally in the NT canonical texts, that such pagan innovationing was happening and some Christian authorities were playing along or even fostering it -- but the orthodox authors rejected this and fought against it. In other words, the evidence still isn't about what the theory needs: proto-orthodox authors bringing pagan ideas in, and particularly to appease pressure from the pagan convert mob. This is not at all the same kind of thing as, for example, Justin Martyr borrowing the legend of the phoenix to give his pagan audience an analogy for what he's already teaching to be true about Christ; nor Justin joyfully working out a convenient pun between Christos, "anointed", and Chrestos, "golden", with reference to healing mustard patches, along with connections of Jesus' name in Greek to healing, behind which might be caught some echoes of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Reaching out to non-Christians using analogies, with correctives as to the differences, to help them accept what Christians are already teaching, is different at almost every point from grudgingly taking ideas from out-of-control converts and using them to authoritatively change and introduce ideas in Christianity for acceptance by Christians who previously had been believing something less or other.

But since we're considering what was going on in the 100s, in deference to (what are currently fringe) theories about Gospel and Acts compositions in the second Christian century, that brings us to...

Category (B): non-orthodox authors and authorities syncretistically picking up details from here and there in paganism and putting them together with prior Christian details to create something new which they approve of and promote to their followers. We do have quite a few examples of this happening, not only in the 100s but for a long time afterward, typically among what are broadly called the Gnostic sects. But these aren't creating "orthodox" theologies, much less "orthodox" histories -- they usually aren't much interested in dealing with the historical Jesus at all, even to create new historical details about him. And they are definitely not doing it out of grudging mob pressure of converts, although they might be doing it to avoid Imperial judicial pressures and/or to avoid various levels of inconvenient social pressures among pagans outside their group. On the contrary, the Gnostic authors reject the mob (and so also its influences) so hard that the typical scheme of Gnostic groups is to dole out secret knowledge to those who prove they are among the elite few worthy to receive it!

So whether among 2nd century proto-orthodox texts, or among 2nd century non-orthodox texts, the evidence either way just doesn't fit a theory of orthodox detail development, whether in the Gospel (and Acts) texts or otherwise.

The closest example resembling the theory that I can find, happens toward the end of the 2nd century, when (proto-)orthodox Christian universalists like Clement and Origen recommend not talking to common people about God's eventual salvation of all sinners from sin, because the common person can barely restrain themselves from sinning even with threats of finally hopeless punishment looming over them.

Whether or not that counts as key orthodox authorities (Clement and Origen both presided over the recently established catechetical university for teaching orthodox belief to Christian teachers to pass on) altering prior orthodox beliefs to create new orthodox beliefs, out of deference to out-of-control pagan innovations which had gotten to popular to ignore or censure, is beside the point (although I think this pretty clearly still isn't such a thing -- Clement and Origen had no problem stomping down on pagan innovations when they thought they saw them cropping up): by then the canonical texts had definitely been written, even on the most ludicrously late sceptical theories. (Not counting popular anti-Christian apologetics which sloppily leave a impression that the canonical texts were somehow written after Constantine became Emperor.)

So, as far out or as early, either way, as anyone wants to put the composition of canonical Gospels (and Acts), it doesn't matter: the situation is still quite different from the interesting specific proposal that at least some innovations in orthodox texts got inserted by orthodox authorities due to out-of-control popular pressure from pagan converts. If any details were invented, they were invented for different reasons, whether by the authorities behind the texts, or somehow before those authorities got around to passing along the details in the texts.


Jason Pratt said…
And now that I've woken up this morning, registering for comment tracking.


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