The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism by Stephen J Patterson

The Forgotten Creed: Christianity's Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism by Stephen J PattersonSummary: A case for “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus” being part of an ancient baptismal creed.

I picked up The Forgotten Creed because of conversations around race. As I have listened and participated, the passage in Galatians 3:28, “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus” (CSB) is frequently brought up. Usually when it is brought up in these conversations, it is being cited by White Christians that are using it to say that Black and other People of Color are in sin because they are paying too much attention to their racial status.

That reading is not what I understand Gal 3:28 to mean in context. But when I saw The Forgotten Creed I thought I should read more about the history. Patterson from the very beginning is taking a clear position. He mentions identity from the very beginning and I think that opening with a clear position of focusing on identity will alienate some readers.

But right before the mentioning of identity in the In the introduction Patterson suggests that the common scholarship for Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, and Titus is that they are a pseudonymous, which he says are ‘forgeries’. That is not a great opening. Essentially it is the only thing that World Magazine says about the book in its short review dismissing the book. Patterson has been part of the Jesus seminar and his demythologizing includes dismissing Paul’s conversion story and removing Paul and Barnabas’ commissioning by the Antioch church and replacing it with Paul leaving in disgrace because the circumcision party at Antioch pushed him out. All of this really undercuts Patterson’s argument with many of the people that he wants to convince of his main point.

The main point of The Forgotten Creed is that Paul is citing an early baptismal creed (one that Paul likely didn’t write but was citing) that called on Christians to transcend, class, ethnicity and gender, three lines that were not crossed in the culture around the early church. This is similar to the way that NT Wright, in his biography of Paul similarly suggests that the early church was unique in the way that it transcended geography (national boundaries), ethnicity or culture, and class. So Patterson is not claiming something unique or original here. But he is suggesting that it was a focus of the early church that seems to have gotten lost fairly early in the church history. First in becoming detached from the Jewish origins. And then becoming patriarchal.

Patterson’s reading is one that squarely looks at power. He says that the separating lines between each of these three groups is about power. He also says that the separation is about fear, I think that is less clearly applied and argued. Because a person believes that they are inherently better than another person does not mean that innately they fear the person or group they believe that they are better than.

Throughout The Forgotten Creed I can gain insight from Patterson and learn about the passage. But for many people that I would want to share the book with, his perspective on biblical scholarship would make any insight moot. If, as Patterson suggests, Paul was not actually sexist or in favor of slavery because Paul wasn’t really the author of 1 Timothy, that doesn’t really help solve the problem for people that are going to take seriously 1 Timothy regardless of whether Paul wrote it.

Patterson’s perspectives on pseudonymous writing (writing in the name of someone else) as forgeries is reading modern categories onto the ancient practice. Pseudonymous writing was common, although not usually for personal letters. But regardless of whether you view some of the books traditionally attributed to Paul as pseudonymous or not, they would not have been considered forgeries. That argument is a false one whether it is from the conservative side arguing against the pseudonymous writing or on the liberal side trying to dismiss the content of the theoretically pseudonymous writing. Either way, it is a distraction to the point if his point is to persuade.

One other problem is that Patterson is using ethnicity as expressed in Galatians as completely interchangeable with modern conceptions of Race. Modern conceptions of race started to arise in the 16th-17th century. And is really inexorably tied to the development of racially based slavery and the rise of the Enlightenment and start of colonial powers. So while it isn’t inappropriate to use ethnicity as ancient proxy for the modern concept of race, there are differences and the book would benefit from more insight from scholars of modern racial realities.

A third problem in The Forgotten Creed that is pretty significant to his argument is the late dating of many books as well as the weight he gives to non-canonical books like the Gospel of Thomas. Patterson argues that the books of Acts was likely written to both counter and affirm Marcion. If this is the case, Acts could not have been written any earlier than 150-160. Many scholars date the book of Acts of the Apostles to around 80 or 90. If the earlier dating, which is more commonly held by most scholars is accurate, the whole argument around Marcion co-opting Paul and Acts being written to counter parts of Marcionism but to affirm a type of supersessionism completely falls apart. There are several other places where odd datings also make his argument difficult. But the Acts one is the worst. Even if I agreed with the underpinnings (Paul’s attempt as cross ethnic table fellowship in Antioch was a failure and Acts was in part of repudiation of it), which I don’t, the dating makes the argument unworkable.

On the more positive side, Patterson argues in The Forgotten Creed, that early Christians understood themselves as adopted into the family of God and that part of why they would have affirmed oneness is because they were all of the same status, adopted children of God. What I find odd however, is that there is no development of all people being created into the image of God. The weakness of the adoption into the family of God as a broader theme is that it only applies to Christians. If Christians really were trying to break down ethics, gender and class tensions, but only within Christianity, it is a much different argument than to suggest that Christians want to break down those tensions more broadly because all people are made in the image of God and therefore valuable.

There is also history around the early church outside of the biblical record that is recounted here and is helpful. There is a discussion of Polycarp and some of his writing about slavery and how at least some slaves in his community thought that the church should buy the freedom of slaves from the common church treasury. And also Pliney discussing two female slaves that he tortured to better understand Christianity. In his letter about it, he said that the women were deacons. The important part of this is that a non-Christian says that both women and slaves were within the leadership of the early local church, which does uphold Paul’s statement in Gal 3:28.

In spite of this interesting aside, Patterson suggests that Christianity as a whole was not particularly interested in slavery as an institution until relatively recently. That is not the argument in Debt, which suggests that slavery in the Christian areas of the West started to decline at the end of the Roman Empire and was largely gone by around 1000 and when it was revived again, it was only allow to be revived with people that were so other that they were often not considered fully human. (Which leads to a whole other discussion.) Similarly, Rodney Stark suggests that while slavery did not completely end, it largely ended in the middle ages in a similar way to the way that David Graeber argued in Debt. I do not want to over play Christianity’s early role in minimizing or maybe even ending slavery. But Patterson seems to not even be aware that there was any change in slavery because of Christianity.

The discussion of ‘neither male or female’ does get more interesting because of the discussion of non-canonical gospels like the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas. These are later works and he is not using them as biblical source materials, but to understand sociological concepts, the roles of women within the church and how women were conceived of socially from other writings outside of the church. The arguments here are interesting, but again, like many of the previous arguments are not going to be persuasive against preconceived understandings of biblical passages. But there is nuance to suggest that the traditional readings of passages like those about head coverings are actually misreadings because they reference extra-biblical concepts of gender that are culturally specific, and mostly Platonist.

The more convincing part of this argument is the breakdown of Romans 16 and the discussion of patronage and how Paul’s list of greetings, which had a significant number of women in the list matters to how the church was likely organized. This is biblical and this is not teaching, but talking about actual people and their real roles and relationships. This is certainly not unique to this book. Many others have made similar arguments. But using biblical material in a list of several different arguments does give more weight to the non-biblical arguments.

On the whole, I really cannot recommend The Forgotten Creed. NT Wright’s biography of Paul does some of what I was looking for from The Forgotten Creed, and so I would recommend that as the best alternative that I have read, but I still would like to find a good book about this passage.

The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism by Stephen J Patterson Purchase Links: HardcoverKindle Edition, Audiobook 

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