Book review: The Forgotten Creed

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Stephen J. Patterson, The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, & Sexism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018)

by Paul Thaxter, CMS

This is a real gem of a book of 176 pages which I enjoyed reading, particularly in the current circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, where significant inequalities globally and within nations and neighbourhoods have been highlighted.

Furthermore, the Black Lives Matter movement has made our understanding of Galatians 3:26–28 even more urgent.

I remember reading these verses when I first became a Christian, believing that it was an early church mantra about the new humanity and I wanted to be a part of it. Listen to these extraordinary words from Paul the apostle:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Gal. 3:26–28

Patterson argues that this was a very early Christian creed, if not the first baptismal creed. If so, the implications remain profound today and require us to reinstate this liturgy into our practices again.

This biblical passage speaks into the heart of so many issues today as it did then in the Roman Empire to multiple communities and vested interests. Patterson appeals to us to re-examine this forgotten creed.

He carefully presents his case for claiming this is a creed where he considers v27 to be explanatory and inserted by Paul into the flow of the creed, shown by its text parallelism. Whether it is or not, he argues v27 is about baptism and the author believes that Paul quoted this creed as it would perhaps not be one he would devise himself. Patterson argues that Paul was ardent about neither Jew nor Greek, about which he directed his missionary activity, but with a less pronounced emphasis on the two latter phrases neither slave nor free, nor male and female. Paul is presented as a revolutionary in regard to the first but more reticent and more culturally conforming on the other two dyads. He argues that verses 26 and 28b have an identical structure and were the opening and closing of the credal statement perhaps with the modified Pauline Christ Jesus rather than Jesus Christ. Certainly a Pauline understanding of baptism is affirmed in this text.

If the creed preceded Paul then it would be very early indeed. Paul used older formularies and hymns and other tradition in his letters and in his mission context. Of course “the oldest cliché” “in the annals of ancient bigotry” is a man in Greek culture who was grateful not to be born a brute (slave), nor a woman nor a barbarian. In the Jewish Tosephta there is a revealing prayer that reflects earlier views and is attributed to Rabbi Judah:

There are three blessings one must pray daily:
Blessed (art thou), who did not make me a Gentile;
Blessed (art thou), who did not make me a woman;
Blessed (art thou), who did not make me uneducated.

The author comments that when this is repeated in the Talmud, the word uneducated becomes slave and attributed to Rabbi Meir.

These are the categories of dividing people into us and them – race, class and gender. They are the other to an educated man – the foreigner, the slave, the woman. Paul contrasts this bigotry with “you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In whatever regard this credal statement is revolutionary and presages a new humanity who all have one Father, one Saviour and one Spirit and all are children of God.

The author explores the notion of becoming children of God in chapter three and then elaborates on each dyad of verse 28 in three following chapters. All of them are exceptional and fascinating reads into the classical Greek and Roman and Jewish worlds. Careful historical research, selective use of sources, keen insights and densely packed ideas make this book a reference text for me. I learned so much more and it has provoked me to read more on some issues such as gender as perceived in the classical world, so that I can consider Patterson’s work more accurately.

Patterson’s succinct conclusion says he wrote this on the eve of 2018 when “all over the world race, gender, and class differences are once again exploited to divide and denigrate foreigners, women, and the poor.” In the USA “they even elected a president who rode to power on a foul wave of racist, sexist rhetoric” – supported by many conservative Christians who endorsed this resurgent popular bigotry. The book is not replete with contemporary applications but it lays a significant foundation to re-appraising early Christian faith and drawing out from it profound missiological and societal Christian implications that would make the world a far better place – if only Christians would re-discover this forgotten creed.

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