When I was in my 2nd year as an undergraduate at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, I took a course called Founders of Christianity. As I think back on my university experiences, I always have very fond memories of that course. In this post, I want to mention some of the reasons why I feel this way.

At the time, I was still a Christian. At this time, of course, I was wrestling with my sexuality, or to be more explicit, how my religious views conflicted with my secret desires to love another man. I can remember quite pellucidly how in 2nd year at York I had a really strong crush on one of the guys in my Accounting class.  So while I was daydreaming about this pulchritudinous young man in my class with his smooth facial features and spiky hair, I was also sending out lots of signals that I was a “good Christian boy.” For me, at that time at least, being a good Christian boy meant no sex until one is married and of course no homosexuality ever.  I think on the surface I would send out signals of heterosexuality, but deep down I knew I was infatuated with some guys at school. This was, naturally, a source of internal conflict for me.

Nevertheless, I decided to take this 2nd year course entitled Founders of Christianity. It was considered a 9 credit course–quite heavy considering that most full-year courses at York University carry the weight of 6 credits only. Moreover, one needs to keep in mind the unusual circumstances of my 2nd year as an undergraduate. That year, one of the labor unions went on a protracted strike. I think it started around October 26 and lasted until January 7 of the following year. I remember when the strike finally ended, our “consolation prize” was a free York University key chain. I kept mine as a reminder of this incident. Unfortunately, I broke my key chain a few years later, so I can’t carry it around anymore.  The reason why I bring this up is because the strike allowed me to do something that most undergraduates never get to do, namely, to slowly and methodically ponder a topic! As any undergraduate knows, a typical schedule is jammed full of readings, tests, assignments and so on. But I was given, because of this strike, two months of “free time” in my residence room in Calumet College Residence.

ImageCalumet College Residence, York University, Toronto

So being “held hostage” on campus because leaving campus meant having to struggle to get back onto campus because of the picket lines from the strike, allowed me to spend copious amounts of time slowly and methodically learning my course material. This, unexceptionable, contradicts the “normal” college feeling of rush, rush, cram, cram!

Consequently, I spent a lot of time in my residence room, 4-4E Calumet College, alone with my textbooks. In addition to my Founders of Christianity textbooks, I also fondly remember my Macroeconomics textbook. Those were the two courses which I was particularly fond of at the time.


My 2nd Year Macroeconomics Textbook


My 2nd Year Founders of Christianity Textbooks

So these were the textbooks I spent most of my time on during the strike. They are the books that intrigued me the most. As a quick aside, the reason why I liked my Macroeconomics textbook so much was because of both the graphical and the mathematical treatments in it. I liked being able to go through the mathematical derivations of the equations. It made me feel good because if I could derive an equation following maybe 20 steps then I felt as though I had comprehended the topic. So for me, something like deriving the “money multiplier” equation of M = [(1+c)/(c+r)]*H was something very gratifying!

Now back to my main topic, my Founders of Christianity course!

The first thing I remember when thinking about this course is how it represents the first time in which I questioned my Christian upbringing. It planted some serious seeds of doubt. I remember going to the Scott Library (i.e, the main library at the Keele Street campus) late one night investigating one of the comments made in the Conzelmann and Lindemann textbook, Interpreting the New Testament: An Introduction to the Principles and Methods of N.T. Exegesis. I had been brought up to believe that Biblical prophecy was an excellent proof of the divinity of the Biblical texts. So for someone believing that the Book of Daniel was a reliable prophecy book predicting Jesus as the true Messiah, the following passage in this textbook came as a real shocker:

They claim to have received “revelations” from God, in other words, insights into the future, up until the end of the world. In reality, however, the authors of apocalyptic writings present past events in the form of earlier prophecy and then add a “genuine” prophecy that usually refers to the actual situation. For example, at the end of the book of Daniel one finds a prophecy about the end of King Antiochus IV; since the prediction of Dan 11:40ff. did not come to pass, the book must have been written shortly before the events described (a Syrian military campaign against Egypt). The assumption can be made, therefore, that the book of Daniel was written prior to the death of Antiochus, ca. 165 BC. (31, bold emphasis mine)


Scott Library, York University

So at Scott Library, I remember pulling out books and books checking on these claims. Was it really true that Daniel’s book was a fraud?!? Remember, the book claims to have been written much earlier, during the time of king Nebuchadnezzar. As the HarperCollins Study Bible says with regard to the book of Daniel:

The portrayal of Daniel as a Jewish exile in Babylon creates a literary setting in the sixth century B.C.E. The visions he receives there thus appear to provide insight into events in Judea in later centuries. But the literary setting is not the setting in which the book was actually written. The fact that ch. 11 obviously refers to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruler from Syria, makes it clear that the book took its final form during Antiochus’s persecution of the Jews, which began with the desecration of the temple in 167 B.C.E. While one group of Jews led by the Maccabees resisted militarily, others offered passive resistance (1 Macc 1.29-38) (1302)

Then I came across other claims about some of the New Testament books, which called into question their authenticity. Let me cite a few arrant examples from the HarperCollins Study Bible. Let’s begin with the glaring problem of 2 Thessalonians contradicting 1 Thessalonians:

1 Thessalonians views the Second Coming (Greek parousia) of Jesus as imminent, and one of Paul’s concerns in that Letter is to prepare the church for this approaching day (1 Thess 4.13-5.11). In contrast, in 2 Thessalonians, the author seeks to refute the view that this return in near (the probable meaning of “the day of the Lord is already here,” 2.2) and to remind the church of the numerous events that must precede it (2.1-12). The situation was thus one of keen apocalyptic expectations fueled by persecution (1.4). Indeed, the author of 2 Thessalonians may have felt that 1 Thessalonians, with its eager anticipation of the Second Coming, had contributed to the new problem, and the rejection of a “letter as though from us” (2.2) may be intended to discredit the earlier Letter. (2,225)

And then of course the “Pastoral Epistles,” i.e., 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus raised more of my eyebrows. Reading the following passage was quite shocking for me as well:

The Letters purport to be from Paul, but several of their features seem incompatible with that claim. Their vocabulary and style differ in many ways from those of the rest of the Pauline Letters. Key Pauline concepts such as faith, law, and righteousness are treated quite differently, while a new emphasis on godliness, sound teaching, church order, and good works appears….An unknown author used Paul’s name to give authority to his attempt to address problems in some post-Pauline churches. (2,229)

I recall specifically while I was in the Scott Library that I found this book that specifically mentioned statistical studies done on the Pastoral Epistles. What statistics were they collecting? They were collecting statistics on the words used or vocabulary. It turns out that the vocabulary used in the Pastoral Epistles is very different from that used in the other probably genuine Pauline epistles. I think it was something like 58% of the vocabulary was unique in the Pastorals when compared with the rest of the Pauline corpus.

Another area I remember quite fondly was rhetorical criticism. To be brutally honest, I think one of the reasons why I liked this was the esoteric language. Some of my favorites were the chiasmus, metonymy, and synecdoche, I do remember this line from Handbook of Biblical Criticism very well:

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which a word is substituted for the thing it is intended to suggest. Apocalyptic literature makes frequent use of M. and its close parallel, synecdoche, as do the prophets, Psalms, and Wisdom literature. In the book of Revelation, terms such as “head” or “crown” are pseudo-cryptic substitutes for Caesar (Rev. 13:3); similarly the use of Mt. Zion for Jerusalem, heaven for God, the bottomless pit for hell, or to say that one is reading Job or Mk. or Paul instead of saying “the book of…,” are all examples of M. (122)

I remember spending a lot of time looking for chiasm. These are basically an example of “reverse parallelism.” So the ideas might be expressed following the form: A, B, C, D, C’, B’, A’ with the central line (D in this case) the “central point.” So finding the D might help you better understand the author’s purpose in writing this particular text.

I also remember spending some time in the Scott Library with additional books–I think it was Perrin’s book–trying to grasp the concept of Sitz-im-Leben. It is a term they mention interminably in New Testament articles and textbooks. It seems to mean the “situation in the life of the Church.” My strong suspicion is that Sitz-im-Leben is based on the assumption that the New Testament books were written not by eyewitnesses standing there writing down what was happening as if these were real historical events but rather by later authors writing text to address particular “life situations” or “crises” or “controversies” that were happening in a church or local churches at that particular time.

Robert M Price’s article Jesus: Myth and Method explains this Form Critical concept of Sitz-im-Leben as follows:

They sneer at the form-critical axiom that particular forms in which the sayings or stories meet us in any way reflect the Sitz-im-Leben of their use (p. 295). They fear, rightly, that to admit this would be halfway to admitting the materials have been designed to serve their purpose and are thus tendentious fictions. (See page 284 of The Christian Delusion edited by John W Loftus)

I also was very attracted to Throckmorton’s book Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels. This book begins with a fascinating introduction to some of the different manuscripts and versions used by translators to come up with the New Testament text we read today. So for example, S refers to the Codex Sinaiticus, A refers to the Codex Alexandrinus, B refers to the Codex Vaticanus and so on. It also provides a bit of history on each of the different “types of text” or “families of text” and the specific manuscripts themselves. Then the book itself will list various “gospel parallels” with a “critical apparatus” at the bottom of the page. So for example, I am looking at pericope (short little literary unit) number 7 on page 15 right now. So there are three columns, one for Matthew’s version, one for Mark’s version, and one for Luke’s version. This particular pericope is about the Genealogy of Jesus. So the Mark column is left blank. The idea is for you to compare and contrast the Matthew and Luke versions simultaneously. At the bottom of the page you can check for any text critical problems, that is, are there contradictions between manuscripts or text families? I don’t see any. Also, sometimes the “critical apparatus” (basically the footnotes) will include references to highly obscure parallel sources. In this case with regard to Luke 3:23 we are told to consult the Gospel of the Ebionites. 

For me, this was really fascinating stuff. I had never before considered the possibility that the underlying text could (and does) vary across manuscripts. I remember when I was in high school, I was a bit shocked when we were studying some of the Shakespeare plays and this issue of “different readings” from different source documents came up. So I knew it could happen, but at the time I had never suspected that such an issue could also apply to the Bible. It forced me to ask a lot of questions such as: why is a particular sentence or paragraph missing in one version but present in another? Why did one version change the order of the sentences when compared with another version? Why is one manuscript different from another? Was it scribal error? Was it an intentional change? If it were intentional, what might be the motive? What might be happening in the “life situation” or Sitz-im-Leben of the church to cause such a change in the text?

I will mention one last thing that I really enjoyed about that course. It was Barrett’s book The New Testament Background: Writings from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire That Illuminate Christian Origins. In this book, I stumbled across some short passages referring to the Mysteries of Mithras. For example, page 134 brings back so many wonderful memories:

As a gift to Zeus, great Sun, unconquered Mithras, and the gods who share his shrine, Castus (father) and Castus (son), sacred Raven, set up two six-wicked bronze lampstands, and sanctified them….

I was sitting in my residence room, which I mentioned above, one day waiting for my parents to show up and take me to the Red Lobster. That is what we would do; we went to the one near the Yorkdale Mall. And I was sitting there reading about the Mystery of Mithras online.


The Cosmic Mysteries of Mithras

It was something about that internet article and this passage which I just cited that caused a big “alarm bell” to go off in my mind. Notice how we have Castus (father) and Castus (son) and then the sacred Raven. Notice how they appear as a “triple.” Also notice how we have a “father,” a “son” and a “sacred bird.” And that got me thinking, maybe this is describing something similar to the Baptism story of Jesus found in Matthew’s gospel:

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)

I was so proud of myself for seeing the parallelism! Later I came across Freke and Gandy’s The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God? where the parallels between Christian baptisms and those of the Mystery Religions are seen as “obviously parallel.” They write that

The similarities between Christian and Pagan rites were obvious to early Christians. The Church father Tertullian tells us: ‘In certain Mysteries it is by baptism that members are initiated and they imagine that the result of this baptism is regeneration and the remission of the penalties of their sins.’ (43)

For me personally, I found this course, Founders of Christianity, to be so intellectually stimulating. It forced me to question everything. And it does. You can’t even start off by assuming that the text you read is the “correct” text. There could be scribal issues of unintentional or intentional changes. You have to force yourself to read these texts within their setting. You can’t assume that what is true today was true back then. This is precisely why they expose us to some of the other Mystery Religions from this time period. It also forces you to be very punctilious when it comes to reading text. The normal college procedure of “skimming text” over just will not cut it. The involute nature of these texts–i.e., the rhetorical constructions–forces you to slow down and to scrutinize the text. I found all this to be so intellectually stimulating. The lesson I learned here is to question everything. It also made me much more open minded. I realized that the dogmatic view of my youth, namely, the Bible is 100% truth, was false. It is not perfect. It is not flawless. It is full of problems. Sorting them all out is intellectually meaningful. Nevertheless, the idea of Biblical inerrancy is clearly false. That was a hugely shocking conclusion for me to come to at that time.

Later in life, I would come back to this course and extend some of its teachings to my personal life. What I am thinking of is how this course introduced me to the Mystery Religions. With my eventual coming out of the closet as gay, I found myself attracted to the Mystery Religion of Antinous. Antinous is held up as one of the great gods of homosexuality, because in real life he was gay! I think I will make that a topic for one of my later posts.