Monday, April 9, 2012

The Social Network of the Epistle to the Hebrews: A Proposal

There have been persistent problems when thinking about the intellectual, religious, social, and cultural backgrounds of Hebrews with various ones being postulated and rejected.  Different contexts arise in scholarship like a whack-a-mole, popping up, dropping from sight, and reappearing in new places.  Contexts are proposed through perceived similarities—oftentimes compelling, but always with a slight stretch, revealing new lights and truths concerning Hebrews but always concealing a lie.  Others will point out the differences in order to undercut such possible contexts, as if any two writers ever agree on all details!  (As a side note, how often does a pupil sound exactly like his/her teacher?  We would expect numerous continuities, to be sure, but also a great deal of development, alteration, and reworking as we find among early Christian texts where we cannot exactly place lines of influence).  It is an odd exercise in which parallels equal contact and differences undermine it.  Nonetheless, socially, one should expect similarities and differences as people pass on ideas from group to group and then adapt them to new audiences and new circumstances.  One should expect emphases in earlier works to be de-emphasized as they become less relevant and older obscure elements to be emphasized as they become more relevant.  These days the search for a single background to Hebrews has largely been abandoned, even as, I myself, have sought to include and “complexify” that background further in my dissertation and more clearly, I think, in my monograph.

I wonder if we could do a different type of analysis that can take all of these partial contacts into account to use the Epistle to the Hebrews as an example to illustrate the much broader social networks of early Christians.  In this case, the content of a document will be important only insofar as it shows intellectual contact and exchange (including the necessary and inevitable changes that occur as ideas are communicated from person to person).  Having been in conversation with April DeConick with her concepts of “Network Criticism,” in which she takes more cognitively than I am thinking of here, and with a friend of mine, Kevin Sullivan, who is writing a book on early Christian travel (one implication of which is that the dissemination of ancient Christian letters and texts need not take years or decades, which scholars inexplicably assume when trying to date documents, but mere months--think of Paul's letters!), I began to think about the communication networks of early Christians and how we might use texts as the evidence of communication, dissemination of ideas, including constant change and adaptation from locality to locality as each connected by a larger interactive network. 

Approaching the issue as a social network mostly downplays the importance of direct literary dependence:  if we see a couple texts as different nodes—say Hebrews and 1 Peter—along a network of ongoing communication and exchange, then whether one directly influenced the other is less of a question than how it can illustrate and unearth underlying social networks (there could be multiple mediating people or groups between them along the same network, for example).  In this line of thinking, the particular combination of similarities and differences and the values we assign to them (such as how unique the similarities are, etc.) indicate not “influence” vs. “no influence” but where they lie upon the vast, complex networks of communication and exchange.  In this case, we should NOT be surprised to see a work like Hebrews falling along very complex intersections of the network and having multiple strands of this network, both proximate and remote, interconnections in which it draws on several lines that resemble other “nodes” along that network but equals and completely fits none of them.

This, moreover, could be the initial mapping of the social network of the earliest Christians using the texts less as content describing such interactions (e.g., Acts) but as the material evidence of such interactions.

Of course, all reconstructions must necessarily be partial.  My primary operating assumption is that these are not the only things written by our authors.  Paul surely wrote more letters than have survived; the writings of his churches to him (which he refers to) have not survived; you don’t become as good a writer as the author in the Epistle to the Hebrews overnight—it would be miraculous if this were the first and last thing the author ever wrote.  Therefore, I am assuming that whatever reconstruction we have is just the skimming of the surface of a much vaster, intricate network of early Christians communicating to one another.  Moreover, this is only part of the written network; undergirding this would also be a more personal network of oral communication and personal interaction.

Moreover, just because an author has evidence of contact with certain forms of thought that are prominent in a particular locality does not mean the author was necessarily from that locality or that the author was writing to or from that locality at the moment of writing; it means that the author has some acquaintance with those forms of thought.  For example, I have read, absorbed, actively incorporated, and developed things that I have read from Russia, Germany, Greece, France, England, Canada, and all over the U.S.  I am not from all those places; I have not visited all of those places; I have not met every author I have ever read; but they are part of my broader intellectual network.  The author of Hebrews may have familiarity with Alexandrian thought, whether passing or more intensive, but it does not mean that he ever went there, that he was from there, or wrote to there.  It means it is part of his network.

Once we start pulling on the different threads of these interconnections, what might follow?  

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