The Collection and Synthesis of “Tradition” and the Second-Century Invention of Christianity

in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
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The following paper argues that “Christianity” as a discursive entity did not exist until the second century CE. As a result, the first-century writings that constitute the field of inquiry for “Christian origins” are not usefully conceived as “Christian” at all. They were, rather, secondarily claimed as predecessors and traditions by second-century (and later) authors engaged in a process of “inventing tradition” to make sense of their own novel institutional and social circumstances. As an illustration, the paper looks at the ways that a series of second-century authors cumulatively created the figure of Paul as a first-century predecessor, and how this process has affected the way the first-century Pauline materials are read. At issue in all of this are our imaginative conceptions of social entities (including “religions”) and what they are, and of how canons and notions of social continuity attendant on them are formed.

The Collection and Synthesis of “Tradition” and the Second-Century Invention of Christianity

in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion



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Hurtado 2000: 271-88 discusses this phenomenon. There is no question that it represents a unifying tendency in the manuscript tradition and one that may be properly designated “Christian.” This does not however imply a retrospective “Christian” identity to the composers of Thomas—only that the text was later claimed as such.


This claim has been made in Arnal 2008a. The argument is based to a considerable degree on the better “new perspective” treatments of Paul especially Gager 2000 and Gaston 1987 as well as some recent work on Paul that has laid great stress on the issue of ethnicity including Buell and Hodge 2004 and Hodge 2007; cf. Buell 1999.

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