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

Publication CoverAs an undergraduate, I had no appreciation for music history at all, and one of my two music history 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.


From Jesus to Paul (994)

I remain struck by the closeness in time between the historical Jesus and the earliest evidence about him.

Even for the important people like emperors the lead time tended to be much longer.  It is likely that fifty years elapsed before Tacitus wrote his account of Nero’s assault. . . .

Paul R. Barnett, The Birth of Christianity, 21

Caveat lector:  This is a post about the dating of events, and about historically attested evidence.  It is “academic,” but it is far from academic in its ramifications.  It takes determination to work through the details in this post.  If you’re not interested in details, just re-read the quotes above, and skip to the paragraph near the bottom with the bold sentence in it.

I’ve been impressed with Paul Barnett’s 1st-century chronologies that grew out of his ardent study of Christian origins.  I borrowed Barnett’s book from my dad’s shelf once and, convinced of its value, promptly bought a used copy myself.  From that volume come these chronological notes.

Barnett suggests the following in his investigation of the timeline.  First, Acts firmly fixes two dates (details in Barnett, p. 24-25) within world history:

  1. A.D. 29 (15th year of reign of Tiberius):  initial prophesying of John the Immerser¹
  2. A.D. 50:  Paul’s arrival in Corinth

(1) above also fixes A.D. 29 as the earliest possible year for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  But in what year is the endpoint for Jesus’s life — the year of the crucifixion?  (This answer will also be the earliest possible year for Saul’s conversion.)

Astronomical considerations relating to Passover have resulted in only two generally accepted possibilities for the last year of Jesus’ life on earth:  A.D. 30 or 33.  I don’t know of anyone who would hold that Jesus’ ministry proper started in 29 and was completed in 30, i.e., was only one year in duration.  Rather, the duration of the recorded ministry is much more rationally set at 3-4 years, starting in ca. 29.  So, the crucifixion and ascension must have been in 33.

Now, about Paul’s conversion … what happened after Damascus Road for Paul, and when?  Both Paul and Luke, whom Barnett finds to be “independent authorities” (i.e., neither copied from the other), have the same sequence for Paul’s life, albeit with less detail in Luke’s accounting (this info from p. 18):

Paul’s sequence (Galatians) Luke’s sequence (Acts)
P. attempted to destroy God’s church P. ravaged church in Jerusalem
God revealed His Son to Paul “light from heaven … voice”
Damascus Damascus
Jerusalem Jerusalem
Syria-Cilicia Tarsus
[Antioch] Antioch
Jerusalem Jerusalem
  • For sake of discussion, let’s set Paul’s conversion at 34.  (The earliest it could have been would be 33, the same year of the crucifixion.)
  • Gal. 1:18 has Paul’s return to Jerusalem 3 years after the Damascus call.  (The Damascus-Arabia-Damascus phase would then be a total of 3 years.)  The earliest possible date for Paul re-entering Jerusalem is 36, but let’s say it was 37 (arithmetic:  34+3=37).
  • Gal. 2:1 has another return to Jerusalem 14 years “after.”
  • Scholars differ on whether the 14 incorporates the prior 3 or not.  See * below.
  • Details of Paul’s flight from Damascus (2 Cor. 11:32-33) follow:
    • The escape immediately precedes Paul’s first return to Jerusalem, which in turn was at least three years after his conversion.
    • The king was the Nabatean ruler Aretas IV, who died in A.D. 40.
    • The earliest plausible date for the first return to Jerusalem is 37, and the latest possible date is 40 (the year of Aretas’s death).

Again, then:  Paul’s conversion and call would have been between 34 and 37, in order to have the first return to Jerusalem between 37 and 40.

* Now, looking back to the third bullet above . . . if Paul’s second return to Jerusalem were 14 years after his first return, the arithmetic becomes 34+3+14, which adds up to the year 51, which is a year later than Acts has Paul arriving in Corinth.  Impossible.  (Backstep for a minute.  We could consider that Paul could have been converted as early as 33, the same year of Jesus’ crucifixion, and not 34.  The math here would then be 33+3+14=50 for the year of the 2nd return to Jerusalem and the arrival in Corinth.  But, the likelihood that the two arrivals occurred in the same year seems unlikely or even impossible.)  Whether Paul was converted in 33 or 34, the preferable option for dating his second return to Jerusalem is 14 years after the crucifixion, leaving the math at 34+14=48.  The possible time window between Jerusalem and Corinth would therefore have been approximately two years.  In other words, this timetable works; Paul would have arrived at Corinth approximately 2 years a) after visiting Jerusalem the second time, and b) after a mission to Cyprus and southern Galatia.

Aside:  if Paul were converted as late as the year 35, the first return to Jerusalem could have been in 38, and then the second return in 49 (14 years after 35).  It is conceivable, but less likely, that Paul would come to Jerusalem in 49, and make it to Corinth by the next year.

The net effect of Barnett’s reasoning is a sort of chronological “crushing backward”:   the most plausible time frame suggests that key events of Paul’s life occurred a) earlier than is sometimes thought, and b) closer to one another.

Barnett asserts, “On the hypothesis that the crucifixion occurred in 33 we conclude that Saul the Pharisee was converted about a year later, in 34, and that he fled from Damascus to Jerusalem in 38 (Gal. 1:18)” (PB … or, possibly in 37  -bc).  The import of this hypothesis is that Paul was then quite an early convert, having come to faith in Jesus about a year after His ascension.

Barnett again:  “The ramifications are considerable.  Paul the early convert is chronologically the first (extant) Christian theological writer, and his christology is as advanced and developed as any. . . .”  “… The christology he articulates was formulated within that brief span between the crucifixion of Jesus and the conversion of Paul.” (cf. Gal. 1:11-12,17)  (PB, p. 26).  In other words, Jesus’ identity as Messiah was already being set forth by 34, the likely year of Paul’s conversion.  Paul then continued said expounding in his missionary preaching, documented to have begun by 37, after the first return to Jerusalem.  (Of course, any preaching in Damascus [see Gal. 1:17 and Acts 9:22] and Arabia would also have been presenting Jesus as Christ, but we have no canonical documents that offer any further details of Paul’s 3 earliest years.)

An approximate, resultant timeline is as follows:

  1. 29:  ministries of John the Immerser and Jesus of Nazareth begin
  2. 33:  Jesus crucified
  3. 34:  Saul converted
  4. 34-37:  Saul-Paul’s Damascus-Arabia-Damascus phase
  5. 37-38:  Saul-Paul escapes from Damascus and returns to Jerusalem [37-48:  various churches established]
  6. 48:  Saul returns to Jerusalem
  7. 48-49:  letter to Galatians
  8. 48-49:  visit to Thessalonika
  9. 49-50:  1st letter to Thessalonians
  10. 50-51:  visit to Corinth

The evidence points solidly to a firm christology established very soon after Jesus’ death.  Incidentally, scholars differ on which was written first — the letter to Galatia or the first one to Thessalonika, but Barnett tends to think Galatians was written ca. 48-49, just prior to Paul’s visit to Thessalonika in ca. 49.  Whether 1 Thessalonians or Galatians was penned first, it is difficult for any rational mind to deny that

  • in the years immediately following his historically attested life, Jesus was proclaimed as Messiah/Christ
  • within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion, the people of the nearer of the two Antiochs labeled the disciples as a movement

Christian faith is attested historically and undergirded solidly.


¹ In these confused days, for sake of clarity, “John the Baptist” is best rendered “John the Immerser.”

Let us often be reminded that “baptize” did not originally suggest anything other than dipping/submerging/immersing.  Pretty much every language scholar agrees that that is what the word “baptizo” means.  What they differ on is whether humans in later centuries have the right to alter the “mode” to include pouring or sprinkling.  I assert that the antecedent word dictates the mode — leaving no safety for adjustments based on convenience.  Further, even if the word “baptizo” had a range of meanings that included sprinkling, the symbolism of identifying with Jesus’ burial and resurrection is far too strong to accede to a method other than immersion.

Galatians Intro

Some months ago, our group embarked on a study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  The study is now complete, but, life being what it was, I didn’t make time for weblogging some gleanings during our process.  Reading aloud helps me to take in important material more thoroughly, and reviewing/writing about such things also aids me in processing the material, so I resolved to move through the study material again.  I recently did just that.

Today, then, begins an 8-part blog series on Galatians.  This material will involve more scholarship (and less personal opinion) than many of my little essays.  If you have little patience for serious textual investigation . . . well, I commend it to you, anyway (!), but you could tune out, I suppose, taking a break from my blog for a the next couple of weeks.  I sincerely hope not to overwhelm, so these relatively abbreviated posts will come every two days.

On to Galatians!


Authorship.  This letter is universally accepted as authentic, i.e., no one thinks it was penned by some later charlatan. Galatians was almost certainly written a brief 14-16 years after Saul’s Damascus Road theophany; it is said to be the most historically detailed of all of Paul’s letters.

Audience.  The identity of the Galatian peoples addressed is a matter of some question; it was either addressed to the Phrygian province of Galatia, or to a larger “Gaul-atian” region into which massive people groups had migrated from the North and West.  I favor the former, more traditional viewpoint on this question; inference has led many scholars to this conclusion, based on the documentary evidence of Paul’s mission visit to Phrygian Galatia, not to mention its more strategic location in the Roman world at the time.

Dating.  The measuring of the intervening time periods between Damascus Road and missionary activity and letters to churches is not insignificant.  Some theologically liberal scholars — i.e., those who are unconvinced of Jesus’ divinity and the specific, saving work of God on earth — are fond of suggesting that Paul “invented” Christianity some decades down the road.  However, a close examination of the timetable shows that, at most, there could only have been 3-4 years between the ascension and Paul’s conversion.  Likely, Paul was converted between 6 and 18 months after Jesus died.  I highly recommend Paul Barnett’s monograph The Birth of Christianity as a means of comprehending both the chronology and significance of the first 15-20 years of Christianity.

In the Galatian letter and in other attested documents, Paul presents the “apostles” as having gone before him: “the church of God” and “the faith” were for him objects of prior persecution.  By the time of the writing and publication of the Acts (post-70AD), Jewish rejection of Jesus as Christ was more or less a done deal; matters were presented differently at that time because the social context and resultant agenda of that inspired author (Luke) were different.  The letters, though, were written chronologically closer to the actual events; at that time, Jewish rejection and Gentile acceptance were both still somewhat surprising.

Galatians has been dubbed the “Magna Carta of the Reformation.”  As such, it provides essential material for any student of Christianity and certainly for the serious disciple of Jesus.

What it is

“What it is, what it was, and what it shall be.”

I am in the habit of dictating notes and ideas into my smartphone, for later action.  As I dictated the unattributable quotation above, going from memory, it was natural to use an accent.  I was alone at the time, and I sounded ridiculous.  I naturally pronounced the words as I’d heard them originally, years ago.  Let’s just say the smartphone did not pick up half of the words correctly, because of the off-base sounds I made in using the accent.

At any rate, “what it is” sounds foundational and fixed.  Some things just are and need no elaboration.  For instance, I had once mistaken a certain professor as “James” when his name is given as simply “Jim.”  I was told that he holds such an elevated status in his sphere that he simply “is” — he is not James or James Miller or anything else.  He simply is Jim.  He simply is.

On a different plane, the words through which God’s “personal name” has been rendered bespeak eternal existence. God simply is, and He used the expression “I am” to try to describe, in human terms, an essential nature, an existence that no human can fully conceive of. My suspicion is that God doesn’t really have a name in the sense that you and I do, but that our human limitations and labellings meant that He needed to present Himself by naming Himself.  The approximation for a name would naturally be one that communicated, albeit frailly, His existence.  God simply is.

Perhaps in a similar vein, Christianity and Christology are inseparable.  One simply is the other; without one the other cannot be.  Christianity is no social club and not primarily represented by historical, traditional ties.  It is no mere affiliation.  (The cultural affiliations are innumerable, yet “belonging” is not what Christianity is, primarily.)

In his book The Birth of Christianity:  The First Twenty Years, Paul Barnett has said, “My thesis is that the birth of Christianity and the birth of Christology are inseparable, both as to time and essence. Christianity is Christology.”  I am compelled.  Are you?

As a group of friends near me prepares to study the earliest canonical letters penned by any New Testament author, it’s exciting to realize just how early the belief in Jesus as Messiah had arisen.  Paul did not “make up” Christianity.  It already was.

And it shall be.

Events of the world “largely inconsequential”

As I’ve (mostly not) followed the Republican primaries and all the commentating and pundit activity,¹ I’ve come pretty close to publicizing a vow.  It would go something like this:

I, Brian Casey, being of questionable, but arguably sound, mind, do hereby vow that from now through November 2012, I shall not intentionally turn on any TV or radio news that I know to be covering politics.  Neither will I intentionally click on any link on my phone or computer that will lead me to stay informed about political “races”–presidential or otherwise.

I lean.  I think the lean is like 50 degrees (yeah, I’m almost tippin’ over) toward an apocalyptic/kingdom worldview rather than toward a politically or otherwise temporally motivated one.  And so I am persuaded a) that whatever happens politically doesn’t ultimately matter all that much, and, perhaps more important for this particular blogpost, b) that of all the words exhausted on politics in an election year, about 98.6% of them are a feverish waste of time.  I simply choose not to spend my time following all that closely.

Oh, sure, I’m interested, on some level.  A word-searching glance back through my blogs will find “Romney” and his ideals more than once, for instance.  I don’t think I’ve said anything about Santorum, but I would tend to trust him as a person quite a bit more (for me, his particular religious flaws make him much more a victim of circumstance, whereas any Mormon’s egregious headlong rush into insane error ought to be viewed with less charity).  What I heard from Ron Paul a month or two ago made me think three things:  a) he makes more sense than most people, b) he doesn’t seem like he puts up a front in the slightest, and c) he will never be viewed as electable.  I’m still a little sad that Sarah Palin didn’t pass muster 4 years ago; Michele Bachmann was not her equal.  Cain was never a viable candidate, and I don’t even remember another name or two at the moment.

Truth be told, I’m not all that convinced at this point that any current options are any better for this earthly country than President Obama.  (I once heard conservative radio talk show host quoted as having suggested that another four years of Obama are probably best for us, because that would really make the country do an about-face toward something different in 2016.)  No, I haven’t liked things I’ve heard that he’s done all that often, and there are multiple things about him that have caused me not to trust him or his motives, but he is the president, and one of my duties — yea, my only bona fide duty, I would suggest — is to respect him and his office.  That much I should do as I travel on toward my eternal country, because my primary citizenship is there.

I may have a few things yet to say about politics this year, but it won’t be because I make a hobby out of following the goings-on this summer.  I have better, more productive things in mind to do with my time.  (For instance, walk a quarter-mile to watch a few Little League games with my son.)  But for now, I will simply share this meaningful passage from a book I’m currently reading.  Although it speaks of the 1st century, not the 21st, we would do well to apply today what Barnett has noted about the early Christians’ focus on the Kingdom, not on this world.

We are struck by this:  world history, apart from generalized comments in Tacitus and Josephus, makes no reference to the new “child” (i.e., of Judaism), Christianity.  It is preoccupied with the passing parade of emperors, governors, and high priests.  For its part, Christian history in the book of Acts is focused on the continuing works of Jesus, the now-risen Christ.  For those first Christians the events of the wider world are largely inconsequential and only noticed if they bear in some way on the progress of the word.  – Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity, p. 41


¹ Can there be a kind of pundit other than the political kind? I don’t think I’d have much use for a musical pundit or a Christian pundit, either.