Urchristentum, Primitive Christianity, and Early Christianity

In the first post of this blog, I discussed my reasons for translating Wissenschaft/wissenschaftlich as “science/scientific” in my 2013 translation of From Jesus to the New Testament and as “scholarship/scholarly” in my forthcoming translation (with Brian Pounds) of Jesus of Nazareth: Jew from Galilee—Savior of the World, both by Jens Schröter. While it is possible that I will continue to vary my translation of this term on a case by case basis, I think that I will most likely make a general shift in the direction of “scholarship/scholarly” in future translations, i.e., toward a translation that gives greater priority to the conventional language pattern of the target language. In this post, by contrast, I will discuss a case in which my thinking has moved in the opposite direction.

From the very first time that I read German works in translation it had annoyed me to read the words “primitive Christianity”. In short, the negative connotations of “primitive” always struck me as problematic and unnecessary. Accordingly, I never seriously considered employing these words as a translation for “Urchristentum” in my translation of From Jesus to the New Testament. Instead, my initial plan was to translate this phrase as “earliest Christianity”, which would allow me to maintain a distinction between “Urchristentum” and “Frühchristentum”. Upon further consideration, however, I settled on “early Christianity” for both terms, regarding the desire to maintain a distinction between them as less important than the priority of readability. While this approach seemed quite sensible at the time, I have subsequently changed my mind for two reasons. In fact, against my earlier inclinations I have decided to translate Urchristentum as “primitive Christianity”. What changed my mind?

First, I came across John Bowden’s translator’s note at the beginning of his translation of Gerd Theissen’s work Die Religion der ersten Christen: Eine Theorie der urchristlichen Religion (2000/2009), which was published by SCM as A Theory of Primitive Christian Religion (1999) and by Fortress Press as The Religion of the Earliest Churches: Creating a Symbolic World (1999). Bowden’s note convinced me that the meaning of “Urchristentum” was not adequately conveyed with translations such as “early Christianity”, “earliest Christianity”, or “nascent Christianity”. This note reads as follows:

“One aspect of this translation calls for comment, namely the way in which I have chosen to render the words Urchristentum and urchristlich which occur so often in this book. I recognize that many New Testament scholars regard ‘primitive’ as a ‘taboo’ adjective to apply to Christianity. However, I have discussed the question at length with friends who are expert in this field, both in Britain and in Germany, and they have confirmed me in the conviction that there is no other possible translation. ‘Ur-‘ does not mean ‘early’ or ‘earliest’ or ‘nascent’ or ‘in the making’, even if such terms are commonly used. It is a far richer term. ‘Primitive may not be the ideal rendering, but I hope that readers will agree that it does the job effectively.”

(For my own memories of John Bowden’s advice for translators, see here)

Secondly, a passage from my current BMSEC translation project, namely Christoph Markschies’ book Kaiserzeitliche christliche Theologie und ihre Institutionen (Christian Theology and its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire) strengthened my conviction that it was necessary for the translator to maintain a clear distinction between “Urchristentum/primitive Christianity” and “Frühchristentum/early Christianity”. In short, through Markschies’ work I became aware of the fact that there has been extensive discussion within German scholarship about the connotations and appropriateness of the term Urchristentum, with some scholars arguing that this term should be  replaced by alternatives such as or “Frühchristentum/early Christianity” (S. Alkier) or “frühe Christentümer/early Christianities” (F. Vouga). Markschies himself contributes especially to the question of whether it is preferable to speak of “Christianity” or “Christianities” in relation to the findings of the second and third centuries (see p. 6 and pp. 337-383).

In relation to the term “Urchristentum”, Markschies (p. 5) observes that Francois Vouga (Geschichte des frühen Christentums, p. 13) has raised two objections against the use of this term: 1) it is said to imply “the equation of beginning and nature and the falling apart of truth and history” and 2) it is also said to contain “the idea of a degeneration of an original unity into groupings and heresies that are independent of one another”, which is viewed as untenable after Walter Bauer’s work. Moreover, Markschies notes that Stefan Alkier has both carefully traced the ideological implications of this term in his 1993 book Urchristentum. Zur Geschichte und Theologie einer exegetischen Disziplin (pp. 5-254!), and argued that the term “Urchristentum/primitive Christianity” should be abandoned in favor of the alternative term “Frühchristentum/early Christianity” (261-266). On the other hand, Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer have explicitly challenged the validity of Alkier’s line of argumentation (Jesus und Judentum, p. 5n. 8).

Against the background of this extensive discussion around the connotations and appropriateness of the term “Urchristentum” within the German language sphere, it now seems essential to me that translators not only translate “Urchristentum” in such a manner that it is clearly distinguished from “Frühchristentum”, but also that we render it in such a way that it reflects something of the nuance of meaning that has given rise to such debates about its appropriateness. And with this in mind, it seems to me that “primitive Christianity”, despite its shortcomings, comes closest to achieving these goals. This does not necessarily mean that Vouga’s analysis of the implications of the term is correct or normative. And it certainly does not mean that a given German author is necessarily using the word “Urchristentum” to imply what Vouga suggests the term implies, since some German authors may simply alternate between “Frühchristentum” and “Urchristentum” for reasons of style. But it does mean that unless the German author clarifies that “early Christianity” is the force that is intended throughout, the translation should reflect the word choice of the German version, so that the possibility of a difference in meaning and connotation may be considered by the English reader. This doesn’t, however, necessarily mean that it was a bad decision for Fortress Press to revise Bowden’s initial translation of the title of Theissen’s work, for one of the most important aims of a publisher is to sell books, and it makes sense to conform the wording of a book’s title to the speech conventions of the target audience if this is likely to improve sales, even if this should not always be done with the work itself.

Appendix: for the relevance of this question for translation, consider the following sentence from Kaiserzeitliche christliche Theologie und ihre Institutionen/Christian Theology and its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire (p. 76/p. ?): “Über ur- und frühchristlicher Lehrer und die Unterschiede zwischen beiden Gruppen sind ausführliche Monographien und detaillierte Aufsätze geschrieben worden”/”Comprehensive monographs and detailed articles have been written about primitive and early Christian teachers and the differences between the two groups”.

For a complete list of my blog posts, please see here.

For tips on how to use this blog, please see here.

For two interviews with me about the Baylor-Mohr Siebeck Series, see Clifford Kvidahl and Michael Hölscher.

Facebook Page: To receive notifications of future blog posts, please subscribe to this blog and/or like my facebook page here.

German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! In an effort to provide a sense of regularity and predictability for this blog’s readership, I plan on writing a new post each Monday. So hopefully I will ‘see’ you again in a week’s time. Best, Wayne.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s