As I may have mentioned, I'm working my way through N.T. Wright's magnum opus, volume 1: "The New Testament and the People of God". Its a big book and I have to say, for the most part has felt like an extended introduction to the next book ("Jesus and the victory of God") rather than a book in its own right. Perhaps all of the background is necessary, but I'm sure NTW could have been a bit less wordy at some points.
I'm nearly at the end, and its just getting interesting. At least, interesting in relation to my current doubts. These are about the origins of Christianity: how did it get started? how accurate is the 'history' presented in the new testament? what did the early Christians actually believe? how did they look at Jesus (and how does that differ from how we see him now)? and so on.
Fundamentally, I'm interested in the question posed (and apparently answered in the negative) by Richard Carrier's book "Not the impossible faith" (which I haven't read yet, but its on the list) - Did the church need the resurrection of Jesus in order to start? If the church could have got going and growing by 'natural' processes, then is it justifiable to hold to the Christian faith today? Is it justifiable to believe the New Testament writings? That's where I'm wrestling at the moment.
Anyway, NTW presents a chain of events in the early church which are attested by non-canonical (and thus historically reliable?) sources from the 1st & 2nd centuries. These 'fixed points' are:
- AD155 - Martyrdom of Polycarp
- AD110-117(ish) - Letters of Ignatius and his martyrdom
- AD110-114(ish) - Pliny's persecutions of Christians
- AD90(ish) - Domitian's investigations of Jesus's relatives
- AD64 - Nero's persecutions of Christians after the fire of Rome
- AD62 - Death of James in Jerusalem
- AD49 - Expulsion of Jews in Rome due to Christian disturbances
Unfortunately for us, the earliest five of those fixed points, and the information they provide only really tells us:
- There was a group of 'Christians' established in a specific place at a specific time. The earliest reliable fixed point is the death of James in 62AD, as the AD49 incident was related to the followers of 'Chrestus' which may or may not have anything to do with 'Christ'.
- There were clashes of some variety between the Romans and these Christians, resulting in sporadic persecutions and occasional executions.
- They were accused of anti-social behaviour and were generally despised, but the history accounts don't really tell us why. They seem to be mostly lower class and uneducated (as far as the Romans are concerned).
So in attempting to piece together a picture of what the early Christians believed, the earliest evidence with a fixed date is the writings of Ignatius, and that is some 80 years after the death of Christ.
Of course, most people agree that the majority of writings in the New Testament were written between about 50AD and 100AD. But I've read and heard (via podcasts) a lot recently, questioning the early date of the canonical writings and, possibly more importantly, various evidences of how many of the canonical writings were edited (changed? combined? added to? had bits removed?) in the early and mid 2nd century.
Even if Paul wrote some of the letters in the 50s AD, if these have been tampered with, how can we get back to what was originally written? I'm sorry, but I'm not able to naively accept that the versions we have are the originals because 'the church wouldn't have changed them' or some such assumption. If there's evidence of tampering, its likely that tampering has occurred...
Anyway, Ignatius. He wrote some letters. As far as I know, these don't have much in the way of signs of tampering, so if he refers or alludes to New Testament writings, then it would imply that at least these bits of the NT date back to the 1st century, and gives us some evidence for early dates of (at least) the original 'strata' of the NT writings.
So I'm off to trawl through the epistles of Ignatius and I'll comment on what I find out in due course.