Creatively Speaking: J. Michael Matkin


Our Creatively Speaking series of interviews continues this week with J. Michael Matkin, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Gnostic Gospels, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Early Christianity, just published last month. I found it very well written and full of information I never knew before.Tomorrow, we'll be giving away a free copy of J. Michael's latest book, so be sure to tune in for the giveaway contest. Meanwhile, below, check out the interview about the book, as well as J. Michael's advice for pitching your own Idiot's Guide book. (Come on, admit it: you know you've got an idea for one, too!)

DI: In your book you state: "Christianity has been growing by leaps and bounds in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By 2050, if present trends continue, only one out of five Christians will be wealthy, white suburbanites. .. The last time Christianity looked like this was during those formative three centuries we will examine together in this book..." To what do you attribute these new believers, these new followers of Christianity?

JMM: A friend of mine once commented to me that Christians had made a pretty shrewd marketing move by making a crucified man their symbol. That was his tongue-in-cheek way of pointing out that Christianity has a special attraction to those who are suffering, to the marginalized, to the oppressed. On the off chance that someone hadn't noticed, that tends to be a rather large chunk of the world's population these days. The Jesus story resonates with many in postcolonial Asia, Africa and Latin America in ways that it has ceased to for the majority of Europe and Canada, and increasingly so for the United States.

Lamin Sanneh, a scholar at Yale, has pointed out that one genius of Christianity is that it translates into different cultures well. We've seen a lot of that happening as Christianity has been spreading so rapidly.

Around the world, Christians are creating indigenous (as in, local) theologies. They're telling the Jesus story in new ways, in ways that speak to their own circumstances, rather than just accepting Western forms of worship and theology. It's this ability to leapfrog from one cultural setting to another that makes Christianity such a nimble faith.

DI: In researching the book, were there one or two facts you stumbled upon that were particularly interesting or surprising, even to you?

JMM: I think the thing that always impresses me when I spend time immersed in those first few centuries of Christian history is the incredibly small size of that early Christian community. Even in the largest cities of the Roman Empire the Christian population rarely numbered more than a few hundred and usually much less until well into the second century or beyond.

The entire first-century Christian community probably wouldn't have filled Madison Square Garden. These days, you can find individual congregations that are larger than that.

That makes it really surprising when, for example, you read Paul's letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth. He talks about the church as if it's the center of God's activity in the world, and uses all of this cosmic language that really makes the Christians sound so important. And then you realize that he's writing to a group of about one hundred people. To go from that to today, where Christianity is the largest religion in the world, can give you a bit of historical vertigo. It blows your sense of scale right out of the water, and that's fun for me.

DI: Of course, you address this in some detail in the book, but for our readers: When were the Gospels written and by whom?

JMM: Scholars love to fight over precisely this question, and with good reason. The answers will determine whether or not you think that the New Testament gospels present an authoritative version of the Jesus story or whether they are just the most successful of several competing interpretations. The conclusions that different biblical scholars have reached, and their reasoning for doing so, diverge widely. It's hard to cover briefly, but I'll give it a shot.

Generally speaking, the majority of scholars believe that the New Testament Gospels were written somewhere between AD 50 and 100, with Mark believed to have been the first written and John the last. As to who actually wrote the four Gospels, that's a bit trickier, since nobody just comes right out and says, "I, Luke, wrote this gospel". Nevertheless, as far as we can tell, none of the New Testament gospels ever circulated without a title, and when you think about it that stands to reason. As soon as you had more than one gospel in circulation you would need some way of distinguishing, say, Mark's gospel from Luke's.

So pretty early on, if not right away, the Christian community believed that somebody named Matthew wrote Matthew's gospel, or had it written under his authority. Is that the same Matthew that appears in the gospels as one of Jesus' disciples? I mean, maybe it was Matthew the hairdresser, right?

The early Christian community spread rapidly and organically, and even the New Testament demonstrates that there wasn't a rigidly controlled hierarchy and membership, but was there any structure? Were there certain people who were recognized as authorized tellers of the Jesus story? If that's true, the Christian communities were unlikely to accept a gospel written by just any old Matthew. He'd have to have some kind of authority in the community, and only one guy we know of fits that bill. The same would be true for the other three.

So we seem to be on pretty decent ground for assuming that recognizable individuals were responsible for the four gospels, people that early Christians would have acknowledged as genuine authorities on the subject of Jesus. And that means that the authors of the gospels may really have been the apostle Matthew, Mark the companion of Simon Peter, Luke the companion of Paul and the apostle John. Unfortunately, there's just no way to prove it conclusively.

DI: I found the chapter on God's Daughters particularly interesting. Can you talk a little bit about the new research that's revealing a more appreciative look at the role women played in the early days of Christianity?

JMM: That was actually one of my favorite chapters to write, and I'm only sorry that I couldn't have gone on longer about the role of women in the earliest Christian communities, because it was extensive and critical to the success of Christianity in the ancient world.

When we think about going to church, most of us tend to picture some kind of public building somewhere. For its first three hundred years, however, Christians met primarily in private homes, and in the ancient world (as it is for much of human society still)the home was the province of women. As scholars have paid more attention to the impact of home gatherings on shape of the early Christian communities, the role and authority of women has increasingly been recognized as central to the growth of Christianity in its earliest years.

Some of the really interesting new evidence comes in the form of what scholars call "˜epigraphical data'. That's a catch-all term for things like epitaphs, graffiti, common documents like letters and receipts, all the bits and pieces of daily existence that can briefly illuminate the life of an otherwise unknown person. And it's in these often-overlooked pieces of the historical puzzle that we find numerous references to women operating in leadership roles throughout the early Christian community. There are some 30,000 inscriptions of various kinds that date from the earliest centuries of Christian history, and only a few have been analyzed, so we expect to see more of these results emerging in the coming years.

Along with all the neat new archaeology that's been done, a great deal of the credit for recognizing the importance of women in the early history of Christianity has to go to the feminist theological movement, and especially to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and her landmark book In Memory of Her. It was Schüssler Fiorenza who reminded a whole generation of scholars that just because the "˜official' story says that women weren't involved in leadership doesn't make it so. I know that sounds pretty obvious, but you would be amazed at how much we were missing just because we had convinced ourselves that what we were seeing "“ for example, a woman in Paul's letter to the Romans who is called an "˜apostle' - was impossible. Once we decided to actually believe our eyes, a much more accurate picture of women in the early Christian community began appearing. It's like looking at one of those hidden 3D pictures; the image is there the whole time, you just have to learn how to look at it differently before you can see it.

DI: Slaves were a very big part of life around the time Christianity was born. What is the original Christian take on slavery, and, if it's changed over the years, how has it?

JMM: That's going to be an increasingly important question in the coming years as the center of gravity for the Christian faith keeps shifting to parts of the world where slavery is more of a daily reality for some people than it is here in the West.

Early Christian views of slavery are complex. On the one hand, there doesn't seem to have been any kind of widespread rejection of the institution of slavery. You don't see Christians rising up to overthrow the slave economy in the Roman Empire, for example.

On the other hand, Christianity had a way of redefining relationships, especially social relationships, from the inside out. Witness Paul's letter to his friend Philemon, where the apostle returns a runaway slave to Philemon but then reminds his friend that the young slave is now a Christian as well, and that this brotherly connection between the two is more important than the fact that they are master and slave. So Christianity didn't attack the institution of slavery so much as it set out to undermine the mindset that makes slavery possible in the first place.

Of course, I need to point out that Roman slavery wasn't racially based; slavery in the West has been. In Rome, a slave was looked down upon because of his status, not because of his race. That's a crucial difference between the kind of slavery that early Christians experienced (many of them were slaves themselves) and the way that slavery has evolved in Western history.

DI: Changing gears, I'm betting a lot of our readers have at least one Idiot's Guides on their shelves. It's an amazingly successful brand. I'm also sure some of our readers have, at one time or another, thought: Hey, I should write the Idiot's Guide to X. What's the process like? Did you pitch them or did they seek you out?

JMM: The editorial staff at Alpha Press, the publishers who put out the Idiot's Guide line, are pretty aggressive in seeking out new and relevant topics for their brand. I've had the good fortune to write two Idiot's Guides, and in both cases it was the acquisitions editors who took the lead in selecting the topic and soliciting my input.

As you can easily see from the first moment that you pick up an Idiot's Guide, the format and style are pretty specific. That is actually quite helpful, especially for a first-time writer, because you know what your editors are looking for and how to meet those expectations. If anything, I think it's the deadlines that can be difficult, but that's the case in any kind of publishing.

DI: I think there are around 500 different Idiot's Guides. Be honest: Other than the two you've penned, which do you own?

JMM: I have this perverse desire to buy The Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting and Running a Bar just to have it on my shelf. What I actually do have are copies of the Complete Idiot's Guides to Mary Magdalene, Digital Photography and Playing the Guitar.

DI: What's your next book?

JMM: I've always been fascinated by the monastic communities that formed in the deserts of Egypt during the early Christian era. Through the centuries, this "˜desert spirituality' developed new forms and practices and it moved out into the larger Christian world. In my next book I'm going to highlight examples of the ways that Christians have tried to live out that kind of ideal community in the past two thousand years. For readers who are seeking silence and spirituality in the midst of a community, this book will be like a travelogue of the places where that's been tried.

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