Early Christianity 2020 Programme

Chairs: Dominika Kurek-Chomycz and Francis Watson

Session One

Tyler Hoagland, University of St Andrews, ‘How Hard Is It to Enter into the Kingdom of God? The Narrow Gate of the Ninth Similitude of the Shepherd of Hermas

The phrase ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ only appears in the Shepherd of Hermas within the interpretation of the tower vision of Similitude 9. Yet in just 6 chapters it occurs 13 times, far more frequently than other texts in the so-called Apostolic Fathers. The verb that accompanies the phrase in Hermas is always some form of εἰσέρχομαι (with the single exception of 106.2 [Sim. 9.29.2]). While the combination of εἰσέρχομαι and βασιλεία is not unheard of in early Christian literature, there are few places with a similar concentration of this phrase.

In the ninth Similitude of the Shepherd of Hermas language of “entering into the kingdom of God” (εἰσέρχομαι εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ) plays a pivotal role in critiquing the wealthy members of the congregation in Similitude 9. This thesis will be determined through a close rhetorical and grammatical examination of the occurrences of βασιλεία in the ninth Similitude, with particular attention given to its use in the Shepherd’s interpretation of the third mountain (97.2-3 [Sim. 9.20.2-3]) and the interpretation of the new gate in the old rock (89.3-5 [Sim. 9.12.3-5]), where the author has chosen to place the prepositional phrase εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ before εἰσέρχομαι. The final section of the paper will consider other early Christian texts that also use the phrase εἰσέρχομαι εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ in order to assess whether there is any evidence for a correlation between the various occurrences of this phrase. Because of their substantial use of βασιλεία, the synoptic gospels are particularly important conversation partners.

Jeffrey Hubbard, Yale University, USA, ‘Flipped Scripts in Hermas’ Erotic Dreams: A Reading of the Shepherd’s Virgins in Light of Roman Oneiric Literature’

Studies of the Shepherd of Hermas have devoted significant time to identifying the many literary and cultural influences imbedded in this complex text. Its apparent independence of the writings that would become the New Testament, very infrequent use of the Hebrew Bible, and consistent veiled allusions to Greco-Roman concepts and tropes make it difficult to identify any one milieu out of which the Shepherd emerged. The cautious scholar must acknowledge that the Shepherd arose out of several literary contexts.

This paper examines an often-overlooked literary family to which the Shepherd of Hermas belongs: Roman oneiric literature. Following the methodological suggestions of Patricia Cox Miller, I suggest that the erotic visions which permeate the Shepherd are best interpreted in light of Roman fascinations with the meaning of dreams, especially sexual dreams. By placing the Shepherd in conversation with Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica, and Michel Foucault’s influential analysis thereof, I argue that Hermas’ provocatively erotic yet chaste visions are employed to craft a new kind of Roman dream, one that is distinctively Christian. My argument proceeds in essentially two parts. First, I situate the Shepherd in its context of Roman oneiric literature with a close reading of Artemidorus and his acclaimed interpreter, Foucault. I establish that the average Roman male expected to have sexual dreams that portended his success or failure in public life. Second, I demonstrate the ways in which Hermas’ erotic dreams also correspond to his position in his community, and argue that Hermas’ submission to the women of whom he dreams represents a Christian reformulation of a familiar Roman topos. 

Response to both papers: Francis Watson, Durham University

Session Two

Kylie Crabbe, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia, ‘Counter Voice on Disability in Early Christian Literature: The Case of Antipatros and His Sons in the Acts of John

Informed by contemporary disability theory, recent studies have examined the frequent portraits of those with sensory and physical impairments in early Christian literature and criticized their ableist elements. This paper analyzes an episode from the second-century Acts of John (56-57), in which the character Antipatros asks for healing for his twin sons, whom he cannot support as he ages and plans to murder. The discussion builds on insights from these recent studies. However, rather than applying a contemporary critique or radical intervention in the text, it argues that the episode reveals an ancient text already engaged in a multi-layered critique of negative attitudes towards those with disabilities, when read in light of its literary and historical setting. First, the passage censures medical commerce, in a form familiar from other texts. Second, it exploits a series of ambiguities and negative characterizations in order to critique Antipatros and his request; I argue that his name, economic circumstances, and threat of murder undermine him as both father and inquiring disciple. The structure of the narrative supports the negative portrait, while leaving Antipatros’s ultimate choices ambiguous. By contrast, the apostle John consoles those whose presence in the story had been obscured, ultimately recasting the Lord “who always console[s] the downtrodden” as the one who redirects compassion towards the sons themselves.

Response: Dominika Kurek-Chomycz, Liverpool Hope University

Session Three

Sarah Parkhouse, Australian Catholic University/Warburg Institute, ‘The Canon of the Pistis Sophia Books I-III’

The Pistis Sophia, from the Coptic Askew Codex, is a lengthy “gnostic” text, which outlines esoteric teachings from the risen Jesus to his disciples. At the beginning of Book One, Jesus discloses that he had previously taught only in general terms and that there were many things he had not explained. This presumably refers to the teachings held within the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), among other texts and traditions. Now, he is going to explain all the “mysteries” and does so by answering the disciples’ questions. 

This paper examines the “canon” employed by Pistis Sophia. Books I-III contain quotations from numerous Psalms, Odes of Solomon and Isaiah, which have their source named, as well as quotations from Matthew, Luke and Romans that are simply explained to be the words of Jesus or Paul. These quotations comprise a groups of texts that the author views as authoritative, and one which both limits and goes beyond the usual Biblical scriptures. Pistis Sophia essentially presents a canon independent from other canons.

Pistis Sophia also seemingly uses a number of non-scriptural texts, including the Apocryphon of John, the Gospel of Mary and the Ascension of Isaiah. These texts are not quoted as “proof-texts”, but the allusions suggest that they were not only part of the author’s library but inspirational in the composition of Pistis Sophia.

The paper will be circulated in advance to all those who register for the seminar.

Tom de Bruin, Newbold College of Higher Education, ‘Effect, Affect, and Economics: How Can Critical Fan Studies Inform Parabiblical Research?’

In the last decade, a number of Early Christian scholars have explored the usefulness of the critical field of Fan Studies for interpreting parabiblical writings. Many have found this field to offer a rich interpretive lens for understanding issues such as canon and canonicity, or examining subaltern, non-orthodox voices. Scholars like Meredith Warren and Sarah Parks have demonstrated that as fan fiction influences media canon, so do parabiblical texts influence the biblical canon. Recently, Kasper Bro Larsen has argued that fanfiction and ‘early Christian Apocrypha’ have similar literary strategies and functions, suggesting that parabiblical writings both democratize the creation of meaning and gatekeep it. While certainly productive, many of these analyses fail to take the full economies, history and production contexts of contemporary fanfiction and adaptation into account.

This paper presents the results of initial monograph research into Fan Studies and Christian traditions, offering a more nuanced and historicized reading of the relationship between parabiblical writings and fan fiction, and considering the (heuristic) implications of this relationship for Early Christian scholarship. I will explore two facets of fan studies that can potentially elucidate the study of parabiblical texts. The first is the tension between politics/power and play in fanfiction and parabiblical writings. I explore the implications of the creation of these texts, which are both the outcome of a fan’s love for the source material and a powerplay of identity politics. Secondly, I will examine the affective and esoteric economies that support authors, tradents and copyists. These two facets will demonstrate the usefulness of the Fan Studies discourse in examining early Christian parabiblical writings.