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I n t r o d u c t i o n Splitting the Difference Making Difference This is a surprisingly long book about a small mark: the circumcision of Christ, as it was imagined and interpreted in the first several centuries of Christianity. I propose to use this curious sign to begin to rethink the historical problem of Christian difference. By the historical problem of Christian difference I mean this: how do we, as historians, devise a narrative that reconciles the persistent Christian discourses of unity and singularity with the undeniable existence of multiple, diverse Christianities in antiquity? As Rebecca Lyman has phrased the problem: “‘Christianity’ defined as ‘orthodoxy’ rests uncomfortably on a history of inner conflict and persistent multiplicity. This intractable problem of diversity together with the ideological claim of unity only reinforces the cultural uniqueness or ideological paradox of Christian exclusivity in late antiquity.”1 Like Lyman, I am suggesting our standard answers to this “intractable ” historical problem need retooling. Most narratives of Christian development have attempted to explain this historical problem of Christian difference using the language of boundaries, conflict, and exclusion. Two narrative models in particular have predominated , both of which rely on similar assumptions about boundaries and distinction . The first narrative may be labeled the “traditional model,” deriving as it does from the self-­ representation of Christian development from within the tradition.2 Given definitive shape in the fourth century by Eusebius of Caesarea (although important groundwork was already laid by the Acts of the Apostles),3 this traditional model viewed the development of “the Church” as singular and organic, directed by providence and guided by the apostles and continuous ecclesiastical institutions.4 Difference is understood as deviance (“heresy”) away from a pure norm (“orthodoxy”). In confessional narratives 2 Introduction of Christian history, such deviant difference is always subsequent, malicious, and identifiable as outside the bounds of authentic Christianity. Nonconfessional variations on this traditional model still posit an “original” Christianity, and explain variant forms of Christianity as later, derivative biformations or “syncretisms” (without overtly judging their theological correctness).5 Traces of the notion of “difference as deviance” also survive in modern accounts that seek to elevate and celebrate the excluded “others” of this traditional model, the implicitly or explicitly preferred “road not taken” that would have avoided the undesirable (misogynistic or otherwise hierarchical) traits of “normative” Christianity.6 The second narrative, which has ostensibly displaced the traditional model in the academy, is credited to early twentieth-­ century philologian and scholar Walter Bauer and his work Rechtglaübigkeit und Kezterei im ältesten Christentum (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity). Bauer’s thesis, that Christianity was originally diverse and that centralization and enforcement of a unified, Rome-­ oriented theology was secondary, has become especially influential in scholarship since its translation into English in the 1970s.7 The dissemination of the translated Nag Hammadi codices and other “nonorthodox ” texts over this same period contributed to a growing counternarrative of early Christian difference that denied primacy to any single formulation of Christian identity. Instead, Bauer has conditioned historians to view the development of normative Christianity as the end result of a conflict with and triumph of a “proto-­ orthodox” party over equally “original” and authentic forms of early Christian thought.8 This counternarrative (embedded, by the end of the twentieth century, in incipient multicultural identity politics) seeks to undo the totalizing and triumphalist narrative of the traditional model, and yet retains one of its central assumptions: that normative early Christianity (whether we consider it the original message of Jesus or simply one among several equally authentic, competing Christian “trajectories”) employed the construction of boundaries to exclude difference and otherness. Even more recent, self-­ consciously “post-­ Bauer” historiography, which “reject[s] [Bauer’s] idea that we can narrate a monolithic story of heresy becoming orthodoxy,”9 adheres to a model of exclusionary boundary drawing to explain Christian development and difference . Lewis Ayres, in a recent issue of the Journal of Early Christian Studies on “the problem of orthodoxy,” remarks of these post-­ Bauer scholars: “They have shaped accounts of the emergence of defined orthodoxies from more pluralistic situations which preceded them and frequently from situations of Introduction 3 exegetical uncertainty. Orthodoxy is constructed from a range of possibilities, some more prominent than others, some already seemingly marginal. Scholars working from a variety of perspectives and commitments now also tend to take for granted that the emergence of orthodoxy involves a concomitant definition of heresy as that which is excluded...


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