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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars History gleaned from Biblical text, August 21, 2010
This review is from: The Origins of Christianity: A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (Oxford Bible Series) (Paperback)
I've started studying the origins of Christianity, not out of religious devotion, but to understand the formation of this institution which has played so large a role in Western history. I'm not finding any single source which provides a comprehensive survey on the topic, though the lecture course put out by The Teaching Company called "The Beginnings of Christianity" provides a good overview. Otherwise, the books seem to focus on particular aspects of, or take limited approaches toward, the topic; so each of the books, while not comprehensive, contributes in its own way to the larger discussion. That's the case with Brown's book: it emphasizes the origins of Christianity as revealed in Biblical text, as opposed to outside historical sources. Brown views the Bible as the primary historic resource, the book that speaks most directly to the historic events of early Christianity. So you won't get any "contextualized" history from Brown, no fitting in of Christianity with cultural or religious currents of the times.

This doesn't mean he just reiterates "the story of the Bible"; he engages in close and detailed textual analysis to distinguish the subtexts of the different gospels (e.g., Matthew more traditionally Jewish than the others)to ascertain the nature of the earliest currents of Christian thought and belief. This I found interesting. What I found less appealing is when Brown begins to take the texts at face value, giving them too much credit for narrative historical accuracy. His approach is, apparently, that it's a narrow-minded historian who won't take a text at its word. For instance, he says about the stories of miracles in the New Testament: "[the historian] is not entitled to reject a priori the the occurence of extraordinary events attested in his sources simply because they are not part of his everyday experience." Brown doesn't support this provocative and somewhat outlandish statement, but tries to quell dissent by disparaging "dogmatic scepticism". I had no idea that a historian was somehow required to check his/her critical thinking and common sense at the door and assign credibility to claims of the supernatural. It may be fine for believers, but it will be an unhappy day for secular history if historians are required to give credence to every tall claim made throughout the ages.

Anyway, Brown's book is otherwise well-written and scholarly, even though its scope is limited, and though some of his basic premises give his conclusions limited value for a secular reader.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 2, 2013 10:27:13 AM PST
JOHN A S says:
Your point "What I found less appealing is when Brown begins to take the texts at face value, giving them too much credit for narrative historical accuracy." was very important to know. I am looking for something that considers why the gospels were written just after the destruction of the temple and many Jews moved to Alexandria in Egypt. It seems to me that much of the creed is recycled ancient Egyptian Christ mythology personified in the name of Jesus. Was this the origin or did it come through Paul or earlier. I would like to find out and it does not sound like this book will tell me if the author assumes the bible is a reliable source. Thank you.

Posted on Mar 26, 2014 11:01:55 AM PDT
To defend the author a little; you don't have to suspend critical thinking, but you do have to explain the results of your critical thinking if you are a historian.
If, for example, you reject the miracle accounts in the New Testament, you should explain why, and not just make a hand-waving appeal to common sense.
You might, for example, offer an alternative explanation of the existence of those miracle accounts; or you might appeal to a philosophical doctrine to the effect that the natural world is all that there is.
In either case, your views are subject to further rational evaluation.
I happen to think that the well attested tendency of people to lie or exaggerate in promoting their beliefs, together with our lack of information concerning the authors of the Gospels (who they were, their characters, and so on) makes these miracle accounts dubious. That, however, is an explanation, and I don't think I have a license to just dismiss any miracle account *just because* it is a miracle account.
If miracles did happen at some point, historians should be able to recognize it, provided the evidence has been preserved. It is fine to believe that no worthwhile evidence has been preserved; if one appeals to controversial philosophical considerations to dismiss miracle accounts, then this should be openly stated.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2014 9:51:49 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 18, 2014 9:26:35 PM PDT
farington says:
Good comment Omar Mirza, but I still think Brown is playing a bit fast and loose with terminology to try to gain an undeserved advantage here. To say that one cannot reject "a priori" the occurence of miracles because they're not part of "everyday experience" is to mix "a priori" with empirical. There are philosophers, like Hume, who say that miracles are impossible by definition (a miracle is an event that contradicts the laws of nature, hence by definition impossible); that's what I'd call "a priori", and I'm not sure it's a particularly strong argument. It may be theoretically conceivable for a miracle to occcur. But I think there's some validity in the definition of a miracle as something that contradicts the laws of nature. Miracles are in fact miracles by virtue of the fact they violate the usual order of things as experienced in life, an order which is regular, relied upon, and which I think can be considered a given. If "miracles" followed this regular order, they'd be everyday, common events, not miracles at all. To assert that something happened that contradicted this order, hence was "miraculous", is to say that something happened that contradicted the given order of things. I don't think the person relying on this given order needs to justify that reliance; rather, I'd say the burden of proof is on the person urging the existence of the miraculous. But Brown seems to be playing a bit of a game here: he says, in effect, "you can't just deny out of hand the theoretical possibility of miracles"; fine, you can't make an a priori argument against them. But he then acts as though this alone entitles him to take the Gospels at face value. He doesn't make good on his end of the bargain, he doesn't shoulder the burden of proof necessary to establish that the miracles described therein ever really happened. I think a historian is entitled, like any of us in our daily lives, to base conclusions on the assumption of things working as they usually work. To be skeptical of any claims that things in fact don't work the way they usually work is not an "a priori" denial of anything, and shouldn't require any justification. The burden of justification lies with the person making the claims for miraculous occurences.

Posted on Feb 23, 2015 12:11:47 AM PST
DS says:
check out Jonathan Knight's Christian Origins.
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