12 November 2005

the holy internet

A mention on someone's blog (unfortunately I can't recall whose) reminded me of the book, The Gospels for All Christians (Eerdmans 1998) edited by Richard Bauckham, which provides an extended argument for the conclusion that the Gospels were originally written for a broad audience rather than merely specific local communities.

My post below concerning blogs and journalism put me in mind particularly of two chapters in this book, one of which is entitled, "The Holy Internet: Communication Between Churches in the First Christian Generation," by Michael B. Thompson of Cambridge University. The other chapter is "Ancient Book Production and the Circulation of the Gospels" by Loveday Alexander of University of Sheffield. Both chapters have the overall effect of underscoring the degree to which the early church embraced and deployed developments in communications technology.

Thompson's essay explores the subject of "communication between churches" in the period of approximately AD 30 to 70, "looking particularly at their motivation, means, and frequency of contact," drawing upon both data from the New Testament and wider-ranging historical studies of late antiquity (50). As such, it is a fascinating window into the ancient circulation of information.

He begins by examining the established paths for communication, especially the system of Roman roads with their milestones and staging posts and Roman sea lanes of empire-wide commerce. The upshot of all this is that a person living in the first century could, in fact, be highly mobile if he or she had any reason to be. Moreover, one could do so with relative ease, even if the journey itself would not necessarily be easy or the zenith of commodius living.

Thompson moves on to talk about "hubs" for information dissemination. In particular, Jerusalem would have remained an important hub, given the role of the Christian community there as the "mother church" of the earliest Christians and the presumable continued participation of many Jewish Christians in the annual cycle of feasts in Jersualem. He goes on to note that places such as Rome, Syrian Antioch, Philippi, Corinth, Ephesus, and other sites of Pauline interest were also important urban centers, located on major routes, playing important roles in politics and commerce, and, in the case of Corinth, serving as the location of the biennial Isthmian games.

The important place of "hospitality" in early Christian ethics bears witness not only to an overflow from the hospitable grace of God, but also the degree of communication and travel that seems to have occured among believers. The church at Thessalonika, a prominent commercial center and seaport, seems to have shown hospitality to Christians from all over Macedonia (1 Thes 4:10). Moreover, Pauline epistles indicate an expectation that the apostle himself, along with his traveling co-workers, would be the regular objects of Christian hospitality.

Thompson's essay provides a helpful catalogue of motives and uses to which this "holy internet" would have been deployed by the early Christians. Not only was extensive travel not uncommon for a wide range of vocations, but it was also important for the survival and health of the earliest churches.

It's clear from Paul's epistles that news of the churches circulated widely and was a matter of prayer. Information gave opportunity for Christians to share in each other's needs. Travel of apostolic co-workers provided inter-connection and oversight to help in the growth and maturation of local communities. The worthy example of one church could serve as an example to others (1 Thess 1:6-10; 2:13-16; Phil 4:8-9; etc.). All of these matters of concern presupposed a fairly high degree of communication among the churches.

And, on a darker note, Paul's conflicts with the so-called "Judaizers" likewise indicate a rapid and widespread dissemination of ideas within the early church, in which alternative ways of explaining the Torah in relation to Christ circulated and influenced believers. Of course, this same pattern of communication allowed Paul and other leader to likewise respond.

Communication, further, though exceedingly slow by modern standards, was in fact relatively rapid. Thompson cites various evidence: the Galatians' knowledge of Paul's earlier life (Gal 1:13), the awareness of Paul's ministry in Judean churches, Paul's personal knowledge of at least 26 people in the Roman church that he had not yet visited (Rom 16:2-15), the "circular" nature of some New Testament writings, and so on.

Thompson ends by noting that even written communication was often delivered with a messenger who carried further, oral report and explanation (see Col 4:7-9; Eph 6:21; etc.). Thus information spread in an embodied and personalized way, providing a lived context of interpretation.

The point of the essay is to provide a background that would call into question interpretations of the Gospels that rely upon an assumed narrow context of a local community with its specific interests and problems, rather than a more general and widespread Gospel audience. Nonetheless, it also demonstrates the kinds of communications that the earliest churches had available and their seeming readiness fully to deploy those means for the spread of the Gospel, greater contact among Christians, and the good of the wider church.

I don't wish to summarize the contents of Alexander's argument to the same degree of detail, but her main focus is upon the use of the new technology of the codex (i.e., bound books of individual pages) within the early church. Available evidence indicates that Christians "far more extensively and more consistently than their pagan contemporaries" showed a decided preference for the codex over other sorts of written texts, particularly scrolls (73).

While scrolls were the standard and more prestigious technology, particularly for serious, important, and valued texts among the pagans, Christians nonetheless were willing to adopt the more lowly codex. There are probably several reasons for this, including ease of production and portability, as well as faciliting the ability to access and cross-reference among texts.

A large part of Alexander's point is, like Thompson, to provide evidence suggesting that the Gospels were originally intended for a wide Christian audience, but again, the evidence also shows the way in which Christians were keen to adopt a communications technology for their texts, even when prevailing standards of prestige and intellectual respectability may have weighed against that technology.

As noted above, these historical observations carry further significance within a larger trajectory of Christian book production, use of the printing press, and taking up of various more recent media, such as radio and television. Thus, it seems to me, that history provides an interesting and helpful context in which we can reflect upon and evaluate the role and place of current and developing electronic technologies (websites, blogging, podcasting, etc.) in relation to the church and the Gospel.