What I've been reading
I may be an atheist (which will preclude me from ever being president but not dictator of the world), but I am terribly fascinated by the history of Christianity and how it evolved. So I am intrigued by books like this, which are about that evolution. White is the director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at the University of Texas, so I suppose he's somewhat qualified to write about this subject.
White structures the book generationally. He begins with the world of the New Testament, looking at Rome and Judea in the reign of Augustus. Then he gets to the historical figure of Jesus, which is the first generation. Each generation covers about 40 years, so the letters of Paul are included in this first generation, as they're the oldest books in the New Testament. The second generation begins with the first Jewish revolt (AD 66-73), when the nature of both Christianity and Judaism changed as the former began to be less of a Jewish sect and more its own religion. This period covers the writing of the first three Gospels (the Synoptic ones). In the third generation, which begins around AD 100, Christianity begins to become a "church," and the people who knew people who knew Jesus begin to die. This is also when the Gospel of John was written. Finally, in the fourth generation, which stretches from mid-first century to the end of it, Christianity begins to define itself against "heresies," which necessitates the formation of a New Testament, a process which lasted well beyond the confines of this book. White, however, shows why an orthodox, canonical list of scripture became crucial for the continued growth of the religion.
White puts the life of Jesus and the world of the New Testament in context by looking at Rome and Herod the Great's reign in Judea. This is obviously somewhat important for understanding who Jesus was. He breaks down the Gospels to illuminate the life of Jesus, but the book really hits its stride when he gets to Paul, who wrote the earliest "books" of the New Testament. He has already gone into the oral tradition of the Jesus movement, as he calls the early "Christians," who still considered themselves Jews before the revolt of the 60s. Now, with Paul, he looks at who Paul was and what he was doing. He puts to rest the ideas that Paul turned Christianity into a "Greek" religion, pointing out that there was plenty of interaction between Jews of the Jesus movement and Greeks prior to Paul; the thought that Paul was the "second founder" of the church, as the Jesus movement was vibrant and diverse before Paul began preaching; and that he was the "first Christian," as Paul never considered himself anything but Jewish. White does, however, shed some fascinating light on the context of Paul's letters (the earliest, 1 Thessalonians, was written in 50-51) and how he shaped a distinctive form of the new religion. Early on in the writings of the Christian founders, there is a definite eschatological bent to the ideas, as Paul expected Jesus to return any day. It's interesting to consider that Paul had no thought to the consequences of some of his letters because he didn't think the believers would be around very much longer.
The Gospels come from the second generation, after the disastrous Jewish Revolt, which brought about the destruction of the Temple and a new, rabbinical version of Judaism. It also prompted people to begin writing the story of the life of Jesus down, which White points out came about because the people who actually knew Jesus were beginning to die off and the oral traditions about him were going to fall away. The oral traditions, White argues, were very influential in the creation of the Gospels. Mark was written first, around 70-75, which is right after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, so the Gospel reflects some of the sadness about this event. By the time we get to Luke-Acts (which, White argues, ought to be regarded as one book written by the same author), there was a sense of anxiety about the delay of the parousia, the return of Jesus. In Paul, there is no need to reconcile the lack of a Second Coming with the passage of time, but Luke changes the way the Second Coming is viewed, as the "kingdom" has already arrived with the destruction of the Temple, and it becomes separate from the return of the Messiah. Jesus's return moves into an indeterminate future. Obviously this is a key component in the evolution of the church.
As the first century comes to a close, the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96) began terrorizing many throughout the Roman world, although White argues that he didn't really target Christians, as many people have claimed. What Domitian did, however, was establish imperial cults to himself, rather than dead emperors, and some Christians were more accommodating than they should have been. This inspired, among other things, the Revelation of John, which rejects imperial cults. As we move into the second century, we get more (apocryphal) Gospels that deal with the growing need to fit Christianity into Roman society. This leads to the Gospel of John, which is far more anti-Jewish than the earlier Gospels. Christianity had moved from a Jewish sect to a separate religion, and the writings of AD 90-120 reflect that.
As White begins to look at the mid-first century, he gets into the definition of "scripture" and why Christians felt the need to codify the texts of the New Testament. Part of it was because of the different regions that practiced Christianity. The Egyptian form (which became Coptic) was different from the the Syrian form, which was different from the Greco-Roman form. Obviously, the regional forms overlapped in a great many ways, but they all had their quirks that made them unique. There was also still a very strong Jewish strain in Christianity, and some Christians had begun to look suspiciously on Paul's letters as anathema to the "true faith" because Paul had taken it too far from its Jewish roots. Similarly, many Christians were beginning to declaim those adherents who denounced Paul. Ironically, a "heretic" was responsible for coming up with the idea for a "scripture" of texts that would be canonical. In the 130s and 140s, Marcion, a Christian from Anatolia, went to Rome and began preaching about his version of Christianity. Among his ideas were that the God of Genesis was a different and inferior God to the Father of Jesus, which led him to reject Jewish scripture entirely; that Jesus was not born as flesh and blood, but was an entirely spiritual being; and that Paul was the only authority in this matter. These ideas led him to form his own collection of authoritative texts which contained an early form of Luke and the ten letters of Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon). Marcion was excommunicated, but he gained a wide following and forced other Christian thinkers to come up with their own authoritative scripture.
As White reaches the latter half of the second century, he looks at the establishment of actual church buildings (prior to this, a "church" was just a gathering of Christians) and the debate over which letters of Paul were authentic and should be included in the canon, and which Gospels were authoritative. Throughout the book, White continues to examine apocryphal literature, including several Gospels (the Gospel of Thomas, for instance, which was a very popular text), and how they reflected the concerns of the community whence they emanated. Another influential Christian in the formulation of an authoritative Testament was Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons from 177-190. Irenaeus, who wrote an extremely influential text called Against Heresies, argued for the inclusion of the four Gospels we now have, and is often credited with coining the word "catholic" to refer to the universal truth inherent in the Christian message. White does point out that the New Testament wasn't codified until the Council of Carthage in 394, but by the end of the second century, the texts that would eventually included in it were all there, with just some debate over a few of them.
This is a very interesting and exhaustively researched book. It's not the most entertaining book, but White keeps things relatively lively and doesn't get too bogged down in the scholarship. He does a nice job placing the development of Christianity in the context of the Mediterranean world, but the one place I think the book falters a bit is when he talks about the creation of the texts and how they are reactions to things in the community. He generally does a good job, but with some of the writings, he keeps things somewhat vague, and I was hoping that he could be more specific. I assume that for some of the writings, the specifics aren't known, which is a concern for something that happened 2000 years ago, but from what he has written, it seems like he knows the specifics but chooses not to divulge them. I could be wrong. With the major books, and especially with Paul's life, he does a better job, which leads me to believe he doesn't know the context in all cases, but it's just a minor complaint.
For the most part, I like this book a lot. It's very fascinating to read about the creation of the New Testament and how the political reality of the early Christian world shaped it. If you're at all interested in the Bible, this is an excellent book to check out.