What if we, as scholars, told the following narrative? In the first century there was a man named Jesus who invented a magical spool of invisible thread. He carried the spool with him everywhere he traveled as an itinerant preacher. When those who heard his message accepted it, he would magically partition the invisible thread, handing an end to each new follower. Jesus’ disciples each carried an end of this invisible thread, and everywhere they went they too distributed it. Like the loaves and the fishes Jesus is said to have multiplied to feed the masses, so was the thread multiplied and divided—like a complicated spider web—across the face of the ancient Mediterranean world. In fact, the thread stretched not only across space but across time as well, although it has been divided innumerable times over the last two millennia. Contemporary followers of Jesus in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches hold the thread today at its various temporal and spatial termini.
Sadly, this is often precisely the story we tell, except instead of “invisible threads” we talk about a mysterious thing called “Christianity.” Jesus invented this “Christianity,” which spread to his followers who became “Christians” as they converted to his message, and which they subsequently spread—over two thousand years—from first century Palestine to all corners of the globe. It is this myth we use to draw lines—or invisible threads—from the past to the present: this invisible thread we call the “Christian tradition” connects persons in the first century with persons in the twenty-first century.
This should give us pause. If the former story is nonsense, perhaps the latter is as well.
As Rogers Brubaker puts it in Ethnicity without Groups, with respect to ethnic identity:
Apart from the general unreliability of ethnic common sense as a guide for social analysis, we should remember that participants’ accounts … often have what Pierre Bourdieu calls a performative character. By invoking groups, they seek to evoke them, summon them, call them into being. Their categories are for doing—designed to stir, summon, justify, mobilize, kindle, and energize. By reifying groups, by treating them as substantial things-in-the-world, ethnopolitical entrepreneurs can, as Bourdieu notes, “contribute to producing what they apparently describe or designate.”
(This post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog.)