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Stephen Patterson argues that early Christianity was a religion that advocated equality for all and that it was against hierarchies of power between masters and slaves, men and women, and between different ethnic groups. It's an attractive view since this is what liberals believe now, and presumably at least some Christians now believe in such equality. Patterson also concedes that this view of equality is not one that the Christian Church continues to believe as it grew. It became an institution that promoted patriarchy and that solidified institutions of power of some groups over others. Early prominent Christians owned slaves. As Christianity grew, it was ready to wage war against other religions. So Patterson argues that Christianity lost its way, and drifted from its original message.
This liberal view of early Christianity thus is not an easy one to defend. None of the sayings of Jesus in the four Gospels explicitly condemn slavery, and they do very little to address gender equality. The writings of Paul also are not preoccupied with equality. Indeed, there are many passages in Paul that seem straightforwardly sexist. We don't know a great deal of the history of the early Christian peoples, but there is not much to suggest that they were known for advocating a strong message of equality or were against the subjugation of women and slaves. So Patterson's task is to carve out a space that allows for the interpretation of some texts and some historical records as a commitment to the equality of people. Furthermore, he has to find a way to reinterpret or discount evidence that goes against his interpretation.
Of course, given the lack of strong evidence about any of early Christianity, Patterson does have plenty of room for maneuver. He argues that many of the passages attributed to Paul that disagree with his interpretation were not in fact written by Paul, but were written by others who pretended that they were by Paul in order to give them more authority. He also provides some striking reinterpretations of some problematic passages to show that their messages have completely misunderstood.
Patterson's main argument is based on one passage from Paul's letter to the Galatians, 3:23-28. Here is the New American Standard Bible version:
23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
At first sight, this passage seems like a meagre basis for such a politically definite interpretation. It looks like this is part of Paul's general inclusive and evangelical message that Christianity is not just for the Jews, but is for everyone. It is not as if Paul goes on to clarify that now is the time to abolish slavery and smash the patriarchy. Nevertheless, Patterson bases a huge amount of his argument on this passage, interpreting it as a claim about essential humanity being the same for all, and thus there being no justification for oppression and enslavement. He goes into a great deal of detail about the writings of Paul and their historical context, and he makes a case that his interpretation is compatible with this passage.
The central problem for Patterson's interpretation is not textual or exegetical. His claims about attributions and misattributions to Paul may all be correct, and Paul may have been far more progressive than the collections of writings under his name in the New Testament indicate that he was. The problem is that if early Christianity had been the anti-sexist, anti-slavery, anti-bigotry movement that Patterson wants to think it was, it would have quickly got a reputation as being such, because that would have been such an unusual view. No recorded philosopher in the ancient world was against slavery as such, although some did suggest it was wrong to mistreat one's slaves. The slaves themselves were not against slavery in general; they just would have preferred to be slave-owners themselves rather than slaves. A progressive movement that took a political stand would have been very noticeable.
Many philosophers did argue that human nature is the same for all groups, and of course this does undercut an Aristotelian defense of slavery which depends on essential differences between masters and slaves. Stoicism was a popular view in ancient times, and many Stoic philosophers set out ideas that seem in tension with slavery (as Donald Robertson does a great job in setting out). But no Stoic philosopher ever came out and argued explicitly against the institution of slavery. There are liberal interpretations of Stoicism available, but it was all much more implicit than explicit at the time. The same seems to be true of early Christianity. There are ideas of equality in their religious beliefs and it is easy to see how Christianity could be developed into a religion of equality. But the fact is that it was not a religion of equality at all at the time. There may have been some elements that allowed women and slaves to have some role in organizational activities, but for the most part it was from very early on an institution that perpetuated the traditional hierarchies, and indeed created new ones.
So Patterson's main thesis in The Forgotten Creed is implausible and his arguments for it don't change that. Nevertheless, this is a rich book that provokes one's ideas about early Christianity. By far the best chapter is "There is No Jew or Greek," which sets out the historical tensions between Jews and Greeks, and shows the particular implications of what Paul meant when he made this statement. Patterson makes a convincing case that Paul, a Jew, was arguing for reconciliation between the Greeks and the early Christians. The other chapters work as apologies or exculpations of ideas that Paul seemed to have, or grasping at straws of evidence that maybe Christians actually acted on ideas of quality. It is only in the chapter on the ethnic tensions between Greeks and Jews that there's a strong case to be made that early Christianity aimed to be socially transformative. That's a restricted domain and does not imply a wider readiness to ignore ethnic differences.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.