Historical insights, “position players,” and “Judaism”

I can attribute my relatively newfound affinity for history to three sets of people/experiences:

Two musicology professors second to none:  Jonathan Bellman and Deborah Kauffman of the University of Northern Colorado

As an undergraduate, I had no appreciation for music history at all, and one of my two music Publication Coverhistory courses was the only music class for which I ever earned a B.  On the master’s level, I wasn’t taught much in this area.  At UNC, though, during my doctoral studies, Bellman and Kauffman led me down paths of historical connection and insight, bringing alive for me so much more than the progression from one “style period” to another.  Presently, Kauffman is Editor-in-Chief of the journal shown here, and Bellman is on its editorial board as well.  Both of them honed my writing skills.  I seized on several opportunities in their content areas, going beyond my curricular requirements and almost earning enough credits for a minor in music history.

Historical fiction

The Blue Orchard: A NovelHistorical fiction is about the only kind of fiction to which I gravitate.  Even in my video entertainment choices, I like things that are, or at least could be, real.  In recent months I’ve read Blue Star and The Blue Orchard.  In case you wondered, neither has anything to do with the color blue (or much to do with stars or orchards, either).  These books were engaging and instructive—the former, about persons in an Appalachian town during the build-up to WWII; the latter, about an abortion doctor and his nurse in Central Pennsylvania during the same time period (expanded a bit).  Both were authored by individuals with academic credentials, and their abilities with language and with storytelling kept me reading.  Read my brief reviews of these books here.  I think my wife started me down this path; we enjoy certain historical documentaries together, and she reads historical fiction, too.

The pursuit of early Christianity’s history

Although I’d say I’ve always been interested in first-century Christianity, I began to pursue it with more energy after reading Paul R. Barnett’s The Birth of Christianity:  The First Twenty Years.  The two decades that began in approximately 33 CE constitute a period exceedingly worthy of our reach to comprehend—from both intellectual and pragmatic standpoints.  Barnett’s book laid groundwork for me in clearly presenting, e.g., these facts:  (1) Saul was blinded and converted on the Damascus Road within months of Jesus’ crucifixion, and (2) not more than two decades transpired between those events and when the first extant Christian writings were penned.

It must not go without mention that engagement with the years leading up to the time of Jesus and the apostles is also important.  I have barely begun to scratch the surface of understanding the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, the Davidic and later-divided kingdoms, and the impact on the “culture” of the people of God that resulted from the captivities in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.  Neither may the influence of Greek culture or the Roman Empire be rightly discounted when seeking to understand Jesus’ message, the early disciples, and the teachings of Matthew, Paul, and other other writers.

Some feel that their denominations’ takes on things are as important as what happened at the beginning.  The logic tends to go something like this:  God and truth are pursued within the faith-community, so ecclesiological structures such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Missouri Synod, or the Vatican are repositories of authoritative truth today.  I demur.  Although I support the notion of “faith community,” in the later years far removed from the first century, I find more reason for scrutiny, suspicion, and distance than for support of church conclusions and directions.  If we understood the cultural-historical setting at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, we would understand and apply the period texts better in our faith communities and personal lives.

The backdrop unfurled above quickly became too lengthy.  Rather than making this a serial blogposting, I think I will just make a couple of relatively brief observations with historical implications and then invite comments.

Observation #1:  the term “position player”

Baseball commentators these days are fond of delineating between pitchers and “position players.”  Maybe I only paid selective attention to news media and commentators in my youth, but I don’t remember ever hearing the term “position player” back then.  (For the uninitiated, “position player” refers categorically to a group of field positions including shortstop, center field, and every position other than pitcher [which is also a position, I would point out].)  The professional game of baseball is these days much more focused on pitchers:  witness all the talk about pitch count and the speeds of their fastballs.  My historical hunch is that the category “position player” has developed along with the professional game of baseball.

Whether or not I missed the sporadic use of this term in my early years, I would probably stake my (lack of!) historian’s reputation on the assertion that the usage of the term has increased exponentially since the 1990s.

Observation #2:  the term “Judaism”

Notably, Paul used the term “Judaism” twice in the first chapter of Galatians.¹  These days, depending on who is using the word, and in what setting, “Judaism” might have multiple referents.  I pick up that scholars primarily use the word to refer to the faith-system of the people of the Tanakh (Old Testament) as it developed from the 2nd-Temple Period onward, i.e., after the return from Babylon.²  “Judaism” might be further delineated with respect to the downfall of Jerusalem in 66-74 CE, and/or the rabbinic period which saw the rise of the Talmud, or other developments.  My historical hunch is that “Judaism,” as the term is used by Paul, has more to do with the faith-system and rituals of the 2nd Temple period than with faith in the God of (all) the scriptures.  I find that the term “Judaism” is best thought of as referring to the Hebrew/Jewish faith-system that (has) existed during one or more time periods after 586 BCE.

It seems to me that the usage patterns of the terms “position player” and “Judaism” may be seen as historically based signs of the times.  These terms are aptly seen as speaking within, or to, historical periods.  Specifically in Galatians, Paul appears to call attention to the system of Judaism in which he had been “advancing . . . beyond many of [his] contemporaries” (NET Bible).  With a developing (but not by any means well defined) sense of the first century, I would suggest two things about Paul as revealed in this text.  In writing to the Galatians,

  1. Paul did not denigrate genuine faith in the God of the Old Testament.
  2. Paul employed a unique or at least patently uncommon noun:  Judaism.  He appears to refer, at best neutrally, to a system of faith-related rituals and practices; in doing so, he distinguishes 2nd-Temple Judaistic practice from genuine, post-resurrection faith in God and in Jesus Christ.

The specification of positions on the baseball diamond is obviously not a big deal, but in the case of “Judaism,” it well serves serious students of Christianity to think about historical development and the implications of Paul’s term Ἰουδαϊσμῷ | ioudaismo, opposite how the term “Judaism” is used today.

Please share comments, questions, and observations.


¹ There are no other instances of this exact word in all the NT (or the Greek OT, for that matter).

² There are ethnic and political implications of such terms as “Judaism,” and “Jewish,” but I’m intentionally confining my observation here.